The Name of God – Exodus 20:7

Exodus 20:7

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Exodus 20:7.  Back in 1986, a man by the name of Paul Dickson wrote a book titled Names: A Collector’s Compendium of Rare and Unusual, Bold and Beautiful, Odd and Whimsical Names.  A decade later he updated that volume with a book titled What’s in a Name?: Reflections of an Irrepressible Name Collector.  On the back cover of the original book, the late poet William Epsy wrote, “Had Shakespeare sniffed the likes of ‘Boofa Upthumbs’ or ‘Eloise Tittlekitty,’ would he still have contended that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?”  Probably not.

Here are a couple of his entries (all, of which, by the way, have been independently verified). For instance, a guy named Joe Bunt.  He became a baseball coach.  Fits perfectly, doesn’t it.

Then, there’s the Druff family (D-R-U-F-F).  They named their son Daniel, and he turned out to be a barber.  So, it sounds kind of odd when you go to a barber named Dan Druff.

He even points out two men by the name of Mr. Goforth and Mr. Ketchum (spelled with a K), who became partners in the same police force.  So, you can imagine how that would sound in the station.  “Who do we send?  Send Goforth and Ketchum.”

He highlights another couple of guys that became business partners, named Mr. O’Neill and Mr. Pray (P-R-A-Y).  Do you want to guess what kind of industry they were in?  They sold church furnishings and accessories.

Then there’s a guy named Crumble (C-R-U-M-B-L-E), William Crumble.  He became a plaster contractor.  How would you like to have your home worked on by a guy named Will Crumble?

And, of course, he has some of the other odd names like the Turners, who named their baby girl Paige – Paige Turner.  Or the Arms family (A-R-M-S), who named their son Carl – Carl Arms.  And who can forget the family with the last name Bacon?  They named their son Christopher, middle initial B, so it’s Chris B. Bacon.  Again, let me just say, I didn’t make this up.

Today, we’re continuing our study of the 10 Commandments and we find ourselves considering the proper use and misuse of the name of God.  If the first commandment says worship the right God, and if the second commandment says worship the right God in the right way, then the third commandment says worship the right God the right way, even down to the use and the mention of His name.  Even His very name is to be honored.  Follow along with me as I read this single 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.”

Our Heavenly Father, part of our worship is to listen attentively as Your Word is being spoken, and so we give You our minds, our very hearts.  And these bodies we present as living sacrifices to You, holy and acceptable.  It’s our reasonable service.  We pray that during the next several minutes as we’re gathered attentively here, that You would talk to us about issues in our lives through this third commandment.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

We understand that names say something.  Names mean something.  Names are significant.  Now, if that’s true on a horizontal level, then it’s definitely true when we move to the vertical level, to the transcendent level of the name of God.  And what I’d like for us to do this morning is to put our thinking caps on and try and think this through.  Because I have a sneaking suspicion that if we were to ask, “Which is the least significant?” (although we know there aren’t any least significant), but if we were to determine what’s the least significant of the 10 Commandments, I wonder whether we wouldn’t choose this one; whether we wouldn’t say, “Well, I don’t think that one is as important as idolatry or murder or adultery.”

Now, if that’s true to any degree, then it bears testimony to the fact that we don’t fully understand what’s being said in relationship to this third commandment.  If, to use the name of God wrongly…  If, to misuse His name incurs guilt, as verse 7 tells us, then it clearly must be important, and we need to understand why.  So, let’s take a moment or two to try and understand the importance of the name of God.

And I want to do that under these three headings: Significance of God’s Name, Samples of God’s Name, and Sins Associated with God’s Name.

Significance of God’s Name

The name that God gives (of Himself) to us in the Scripture is something that’s extremely precious.  The name of God, the unique name of God, the proper name of God, that’s given to us in the Bible is spelled with the English letters Y-H-W-H.  In your Bible it’s found in verse 7 as LORD (all caps).  So, whenever you see LORD (all caps), then you know that the original Hebrew scriptures were using the proper name for God.  The reason for the capitalization is to distinguish it from another name for God that’s spelled L-o-r-d (regularly).  When you see the “regular” spelling of Lord, then you know that the Hebrew scriptures were not using God’s personal and proper name.  They were using the word Adonai, which is the word for the title “lord.”

When you see the proper name of God (LORD), it’s referring to the Hebrew consonants YHWH.  That’s how you would spell God’s personal name, but that’s hard to pronounce because there aren’t any vowels in the original Hebrew.  And God did that on purpose.  God didn’t want His name pronounced.  It was too precious.

In fact, in the earliest chapters of the Old Testament, we discover that there was only one occasion in the whole Jewish year when someone was allowed to utter God’s name – and that was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  On that day, the high priest went into the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 23) and there, on that day, he took the name of God “Yahweh” upon his lips.  But the fact of the matter was, and still is, that the name of God was supremely precious.

God’s encounters with Moses have as much to teach us about the precious nature of His name as any others do.  Let me take you back to two scenes in the life of Moses.  You’re probably familiar with both of them.  The first is in Exodus 33-34 and then we’ll come back to Exodus 3.

In Exodus 33:13, God meets with Moses and Moses makes this request: “If You are pleased with me, teach me Your ways so I may know You and continue to find favor with You.”  In verse 18, Moses says, “Now show me Your glory.”  And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim My name, [Yahweh], in your presence.  I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.  But,’ [God] said, ‘you cannot see My face, for no one may see Me and live’” (Exodus 33:18-20).  And we’re told that there was a place in the rock, a spot in the mountain, where Moses could stand and God would pass by and Moses would be protected.

And when you flip over to Exodus 34:5ff: “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with [Moses] and proclaimed His name, [Yahweh].  And [God] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘[Yahweh, Yahweh,] the compassionate and gracious God.’”  In other words, God says His name twice, and then He explains what He’s saying in saying His name.  “The compassionate and gracious God.”  What is God like?  “Slow to anger.”  He’s “abounding in love and faithfulness.”  He “maintain[s] love to thousands.”  He “forgiv[es] wickedness, rebellion and sin,” yet He is a just God and therefore “does not leave the guilty unpunished.  And Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth and worshipped” (Exodus 34:5-8).

So, we need to understand that the name of God is precious, and by His name God portrays His greatness.  God reveals all that He is and all that He does.

Now, if you turn back to Exodus 3.  This is the story of Moses and the burning bush, where God reveals Himself to Moses.  Moses finds out that he’s going on a significant mission; he’s going to go to Pharaoh to say, “Let my people go.”  Exodus 3:13 says, “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is His name?”  Then what shall I tell them?’”

Now, doesn’t that strike you as a little bit funny?  He says, “If I go to them and say, ‘The God (Elohim) of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say, ‘Tell me His name.’”  In other words, there’s a dimension to God that’s revealed in the name which He’s now about to give to Moses that is so immense in its grandeur and in its power that even the name Elohim, which is how Genesis 1 begins – “In the beginning [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) that that word, nor even all of those words put together, can begin to express the immensity of who God is.

“Well,” says God, “If they ask you that question, just use the verb to be.  Say to them, ‘I Am who I Am.’”  That’s what God says to Moses: “And you’re to say to them, ‘I Am has sent me to you.”  What in the world does that mean, “I Am has sent me to you”?  Here’s what it means.  By using the verb form “to be” God is revealing that He’s self-existent, that He’s self-sufficient, that He’s sovereign, that He depends on no one and He depends on nothing.  Now, who else in all of creation can take that as their name?  Who else do you know who is self-existent, self-fulfilled, in need of no one, in need of nothing, and altogether sovereign?  The answer is you don’t know anyone, and neither do I, for there is no one else.

And that, you see – jumping from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus – that’s why Jesus got Himself in so much trouble with the Jews: because He kept saying, “Before Abraham was … I Am” (John 8:58)!  And they said, “That’s God’s name!”  And He said, “That’s right. I’m self-existent. I’m self-sufficient. I’m sovereign. I need no one, and I need nothing.”  Which is a reminder to us (in passing) that the God to whom we worship, the God of Scripture, the God of the Bible isn’t some cosmic discovery, nor is He a God of our own creation, but He’s the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He’s Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He’s perfect and powerful and praiseworthy.  And all of that is revealed in His name.

When Jeremiah grasped this, he said, “There[’s] none like … thee, O LORD; Thou art great, and Thy Name is great in might” (Jeremiah 10:6).  Psalm 20:7, says, “Some trust in chariots, … some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.”  What was Jesus’ great triumphant prayer in John 17:6, “I have manifested Your Name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world.”  Now, clearly, folks, this means something more than simply terminology.  This means something more than simply saying, “God is God.”  I mean, that’s repetition.  No, God is expressing something of His character, and of His power, and of His control, and of His influence in all of the world.

And until we grasp this, we can’t understand why the third commandment would be so significant.  See, if God is just down here somewhere, or if God is a cosmic creation, or if God is a figment of my imagination, or if God is whatever I want Him to be, then why in the world shouldn’t I misuse His name?  But… If God is “I Am,” then I’ve got a problem, and so do you.

Samples of God’s Name

Now, let me give you one or two names of God.  You may like to write these down.  I think you’ll find this helpful.  And certainly, if you get ahold of this, you’ll understand why God is so concerned about His Name.  Let me give them to you.  And this is not exhaustive or comprehensive; it’s selective.

The first one is Elohim.  This simply means “Creator.”  I referred to it just a moment ago, Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.”  Can I ask you this morning, do you honor God as your creator?  Do you believe that God created ex nihilo, that He took nothing and made something?  Do you believe that God is self-existent?  That He spoke and the world came into being?  That He set the stars in space?  That He put the planets where He wants them?  That He, in Christ, holds everything together?  Do you have a core, deep conviction in your heart concerning Elohim?  If not, then when you take His name upon your lips, you misuse His name, because His name is “Creator.”

Number two: El Elyon.  It simply means “God the Most-High.”  You find it in Genesis 14:18 in the priesthood of Melchizedek: He was priest of “[El Elyon] God Most High.”  The name emphasizes the sovereignty and the rule and the power of God.  Ask yourself, as I must, “Do I believe in the sovereign, powerful rule of God?  Do I worship and understand El Elyon?  And if I do, then why do I complain so much about my circumstances, and why do I doubt His ability to intervene on my behalf?”  It’s because I misuse His name.

Number three: He’s Yahweh-Jireh (or Jehovah-Jireh).  It simply means “the God who provides.”  Do you know the God who provides? Abraham and Isaac learned this name in Genesis 22, when God called Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, and sacrifice him to the Lord.  You know the story.  Abraham and Isaac go to Mount Moriah, and even though God had said, “Take your boy and sacrifice him,” Abraham said to the servants, “The boy and I will be back.”  Why?  Because he knew what Isaac was going to find out.  And when Isaac said, “Hey, we’ve got the wood, and we’ve got the fire going, but we ain’t got nothing to put up here,” Abraham says, “Yahweh, He is Yahweh-Jireh.”  And turning, they look and see a ram caught in the thicket.  And on that day, Isaac discovered that God was Yahweh, the provider God.

And in a very realistic sense, that beast on that altar bore the place of Isaac and figured what was to happen centuries later when on a Roman cross outside the walls of Jerusalem there would be yet another Who would be bearing the place of another who deserved it.  And there, as Philip Bliss writes, “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood, Sealed my pardon with His blood: Hallelujah! What a Savior.”  Yahweh-Jireh

Oh, could I take this name upon my lips as a curse, as a joke, as a flippancy?  Could I sit in the theater and listen to them abuse the name of my Savior?  Can I listen to the nonsense without stopping my ears and running for sanity?  You better believe we can.  We’ve become so desensitized by the godlessness of our culture that we have a sneaking suspicion, as I say to you, that this commandment is an old-fashioned rule from somewhere long ago and that it bears no relevance to us at all.

Children, come in our homes and curse God. T hey come in and say “Jesus,” and they’re not worshipping Him.  We pick them up in our cars, and they jam their finger in the door and profane the name of Christ.  They don’t know any better.  They don’t know that He’s El Elyon.  They don’t know that He’s the Provider.  They don’t know that He’s Yahweh.  And they never will, living next door to the likes of some of us… for they hear the same stuff from our lips when we drive our golf ball into the woods or we stub or toe on the bed post.

The problem is our God is too small.  We’ve brought Him down to our level.  We’ve made Him manageable.  We’ve made Him such that we can manipulate Him.  We don’t exist for His glory, rather He exists for ours.  We come to worship in order that we might get Him to do what we want.  We don’t come to worship in order that we might magnify and praise His name, so that we might discover His plan for our lives.

Number four: Yahweh Nissi – “He’s my banner.”  What does that mean?  It was the banner of the marching armies, the protection of the army around Him.  And you’re walking into some things tomorrow, and so am I.  And we say to ourselves, “I don’t know if I can cope with another day in that office.  I don’t know if I can bear another cancer treatment.  I’m not sure I can do another load of laundry. I  don’t think I can make these breakfasts anymore for these kids or get these lunches and drive like a jolly taxi driver for the rest of my life.  I don’t know if I can do it!”  Well, let me tell you something: Yahweh Nissi, the Lord is your banner.  He’s your protection in the storm.  Get underneath the banner and walk forward!

Number five: He is Yahweh-Mekaddesh; the Lord of holiness.

Number six: He is Yahweh Shalom; the God of peace.

Number seven: He is Yahweh-Tsidkenu, “the Lord my righteousness.”  What does that mean?  We, who are unrighteous, who are dead in our trespasses and in our sins, who follow the ways of the world and the wickedness of Satan unwittingly without even knowing it, who are underneath the condemnation of God, we may now stand complete and unchallenged by God’s holiness.  How?  By keeping the Ten Commandments?  By showing up at church?  By helping ladies with their groceries?  By cutting the lawn for the little old man next door?  No.  By acknowledging that there’s no possibility whatsoever of standing before God’s holiness except to face judgment, unless there is one who may take our place – namely, Yahweh-Tsidkenu, “the Lord our righteousness.”

Number eight: He is El Shaddai (God Almighty).  Don’t you love that song, written by Michael Card and made popular by Amy Grant in the 1980’s?  “El Shaddai, El Shaddai, El-Elyon na Adonai.”  You say, “What in the world are we singing?”  We’re just magnifying the greatness of God.  Now, it’s not about the significance of G-o-d.  It’s about the fact that God, in declaring and disclosing Himself, shows the wonder of who He is.

Sins Associated with God’s Name

Let me come to the part you’re most expecting: How, then, in the world do we break this third commandment?  This is what you thought was important, and it is.  But the fact is, the reason I’ve emphasized all of this is because until we understand the importance of God’s name, then breaking the commandment has very little significance at all.  But once we understand the magnitude of what we’re doing when we abuse and misuse the name of God, then it becomes a telling truth.

Three words summarize it: we break the third commandment by blasphemy, perjury, and hypocrisy.  Or, if you like, we break the third commandment by swearing, lying, and kidding.

Every time that we incorporate the name of God into things that we’re saying in order somehow to try and strengthen our words – for example, I hear people say, “And that’s the God’s-honest truth” – that’s blasphemy.  There’s only one truth, and that’s God’s truth.  We don’t need God’s name added to truth.  Our words are to be “yes” and “no,” not “yes” and “no” and “maybe.”  So, we don’t need to bring down the name of divinity in order to reinforce what we’re saying, unless, of course, what we’re saying is so shaky because of our character that we feel somehow, we need to strengthen it by an abuse of the name of God.

We blaspheme God by treating His name irreverently.  We blaspheme God by mentioning His name and in the same time casting doubt on His character.  We blaspheme God when we use His name in anger and in arrogance and in defiance of who He is.  We misuse the name of God and take it in vain when we’re lying or uttering falsehoods and using God’s name to back it up; when we say we’ll do things, and then, using God’s name, affirm that, and then back off and don’t do it.

Did you stand at the front of a church and answer “I do” to the pastor’s question?  Did you stand at the front of the church and say, “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other, keep myself only unto her,” or “only unto him,” “so long as we both shall live?”  Did you?  And are you doing it?  “Well, pastor, you don’t know my circumstances.”  You’re right.  I don’t, but He does.  Did you vow to God that you would serve Him with all of your life, that you were prepared to go anywhere, do anything for Him, at any time, and you made that commitment, and you’ve stepped back from it?  You misused the name of God.

And we misuse the name of God when we take it and joke with it or are hypocritical with it in any way.  There’s a strange and progressing and disturbing frequency of expressions amongst evangelical Christians (including me), such as “Good Lord!” “Lord, have mercy,” even “God!” or “Oh my God!”

Loved ones, just when you and I are ready to sneak past the third commandment, it jumped up and bit us.  Every service that you and I attend where I worship God with my lips and not from my heart, I break the third commandment.  Every song that I sing using the name of God, when I sing lies, when I sing superficially, when I do not engage the reality of my being, I misuse the name of God.

The fact is that it’s only when we take God’s name in praise, and in study, and in love, and in carefulness, and in obedience, and in prayer, and in confidence, and in evangelism, and in thankfulness that we begin to get on the flipside of the commandment, expressed in the opening phrase of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.”

Most of us have reached that point of forgetting or misplacing people’s names.  And some of you are sitting out there this morning, and you’re thinking: “God, I don’t know Your Name.  I never met You.”

“And you will call His name Jesus,” said the angel, “for He will save the people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  It’s only when we encounter Christ as Savior that we meet God.  It’s only, then, in meeting God that we can begin to understand why His name is to be hallowed.  And therefore, this morning, that is both our point of conclusion and, for some, needs to be the point of beginning.

Our God and our Father, the psalmist tells us that “You have exalted above all things Your Name and Your Word” (Psalm 138:2).  Forgive us for our flippancy, and for our lies, and for our superficiality, when uttering Your most holy name.  As we look into this law and see our faces in the mirror, we know we can’t cleanse ourselves by trying to do better.  And we thank You that You have provided for us, in Christ, a Savior.  Lord, we want to be able to join the great hymn writer, John Newton, and say, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, in a believer’s ear!  It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and dries away his fear.”  O God, grant us grace to hear You, to respond to You, and to live out what we’ve learned.  For we ask these things, commending one another lovingly to Your care, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Idols and Images – Exodus 20:4-6

Exodus 20:4-6

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Exodus 20.  A few weeks ago, we began a new series on the 10 Commandments, and this week we’re up to number two.  As you’re finding your place, let me read to you a rather strange obituary.

Please join me in remembering a great icon of the entertainment community.  The Pillsbury Doughboy died yesterday of a yeast infection and trauma complications from repeated pokes in the belly.  He was 71.

Doughboy was buried in a lightly greased coffin.  Dozens of celebrities turned out to pay their respects, including Mrs. Butterworth, Hungry Jack, the California Raisins, Betty Crocker, Hostess Twinkies, and Captain Crunch.  The grave site was piled high with flours.  Aunt Jemima delivered the eulogy and lovingly described Doughboy as a man who never knew how much he was kneaded.

Doughboy rose quickly in show business, but his later life was filled with turnovers.  He was not considered a very smart cookie, wasting much dough on half-baked schemes.  Despite being a little flaky at times, he still was a crusty old man and was considered a positive roll model for millions.

Doughboy is survived by his wife Play Dough, three children: John Dough, Jane Dough and Dosey Dough, plus they had one in the oven.  He is also survived by his elderly father, Pop Tart.  The funeral was held at 350 for about 20 minutes.

Now, the reason we find this slightly humorous is because we all know that the Pillsbury Doughboy isn’t real.  He didn’t exist.  We know he wasn’t a real person, so we can laugh at something like this.  But the children of Israel – living thousands of years ago in the land of Canaan – were surrounded by gods and goddesses that were represented in images and statues that didn’t exist.  They weren’t real.  They were made up.  They were imaginary.

In fact, the prophet Elijah makes fun of these imaginary gods when he had his famous showdown on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18).  Remember that?  The people of Israel can’t decide whom to worship, so Elijah and the prophets of Baal agree to a little wager.  We’ll both prepare altars and put bulls on them and whichever god/God responds is the One and Only True God.

So, the prophets of Baal go first and they cry out to Baal from morning until noon, but there’s no answer.  Then, at noon, Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god.  Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27).  Baal isn’t real.  But Yahweh…  The LORD God…  The one and only true God that’s revealed to us in the pages of sacred scripture is.

Last week we were reminded that God takes idolatry very seriously.  He wants to have first priority in our lives, and yet, truth be told, He often struggles to make into our top 5.  He’s somewhere down the line behind careers, and family, and entertainment, and money, and sex, and our own sense of importance, and all sorts of other stuff.  So, we were challenged to remove all of those things, and once again recognize Him for who He is – the Almighty God – our Redeemer and Lord.

Today, we’re going to consider the second commandment.  Follow along with 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.”

“Our Father and our God, we do now bow our wills to You. We bow our will, and we are submitted to what Your Spirit might say.  And we pray, that in spite of the vessel that You’re using, You would speak loud and clear about who You are and how You are to be worshiped.  We love you; and we want, and we need to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, so we pray that You would teach us, and that You would feed us.  In Jesus’ name, amen.”

If the first commandment says that God has to be worshiped exclusively, then the second commandment tells us that God has to be worshiped correctly.  If the first commandment tells us whom to worship, then the second commandment tells us how to worship.  If the first commandment is against false gods, then the second commandment is against false worship of the true God.  You see how these first two commandments go together?

This morning, I want us to consider three things.  Number one: the prohibition – what does this mean?  Number two: the problem – why do we fail?  Number three: the proclamation – how are we to see God?

The Prohibition

Some of you grew up in churches with lots of images, and I know that I’m speaking to people today who have come out of denominations or even completely different religions that include statues and images and icons.  So, I want to be sensitive to all of that, and at the same time I want us to understand the unvarnished truth of this commandment.

Naturally, the first question that people have is, isn’t it OK to have art?  What about engravings?  What about drawings?  After all, the Bible says that God gave Moses pretty strict instructions on how to build the tabernacle.  You remember on the veil in the tabernacle were drawings of cherubim and angels.  They dwell in heaven.  Or what about the menorah – the seven-branched candle holder – there were knobs and flowers?  The ephod that the high priest wore had engravings of cherubim.  And what about the mercy seat – the lid that covered the ark of the covenant?  It had statues of two cherubim with their wings outstretched towards the center.

Did God violate His own commandment?  No, and here’s why.  First, none of those things represent God.  And second, according to Hebrews 8 and 9, the tabernacle and everything that was being done there was an earthly drama, a human depiction of what was going on in heaven.  It was a worldly representation of a heavenly reality.

So, here’s the synthesis of it.  Here’s the bottom line.  Here’ the irreducible minimum.  This commandment refers to worship.  Look at the first part of verse 5, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”  This commandment, although it has connections with art, really isn’t about art.  It’s about how we worship.  The commandment is saying this: God is Spirit, and nothing in the material world could ever represent Him adequately.

So, the idea here is not art.  But I’ll say this.  If art leads to an image in your mind of who God is, then it’s wrong.  Any image that we look to in order to know God or be drawn closer to Him is wrong.  And if you have a statue or a picture or some other type of image that’s supposed to be a representation of Jesus in your home or here at this church that you get in front of and bow down to and worship, then let me tell you DON’T DO IT.  It’s not the art, it’s the adoration.  It’s not the drawing, it’s the devotion.  It’s not the picture, it’s the piety.

Let me give you an example right out of the Bible.  Let me refresh your memory, because it’s a story that happened in Numbers 21.  The children of Israel were in the desert.  They’re murmuring and they’re complaining.  And God sent snakes into the camp to bite them, and they started dying.  So, God tells Moses to fashion a brass serpent and put it on a pole and lift it up.  And as people look at the brass serpent they’ll get healed.  That’s the cure.

Now somebody might say, “Hey, wait a minute.  Didn’t God say not to make any images of things in heaven or on earth or under the earth?  And yet, right here God is telling Moses to make a serpent.  What’s up?”  Yes, but notice that they are only told to look at the serpent.  There’s no worship.  There’s no praying to the serpent.  There’s no lighting candles in the presence of the serpent.  There’s no parading the serpent up and down the aisles of the congregation, or singing to the serpent – only looking at the serpent.

But did you know that the people of Israel didn’t throw the serpent away?  They kept it.  It became a sacred icon.  And as years went on, they didn’t look at that icon the same way they once did.  They looked at it superstitiously.  And we find it again in 2 Kings 18:4, where we’re told, “King Hezekiah broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it and called it Nehushtan.”

See what was happening?  The symbol became the substitute.  They weren’t looking at it by faith any more.  It wasn’t just a symbol of what God did in the wilderness.  They were worshiping the symbol.  The symbol became the substitute for God.  And that can happen with the cross and crucifixes, too.  People have crosses and crucifixes and look at them superstitiously.  “I forgot my cross today.  I’m not wearing it.”  “OK, so what?”  “So, what?  It’s my lucky cross.”  See, they’ve given it a value that was never intended.  I’ve met a whole lot of people, and even churches, who get hung up on having a cross, but they don’t live under the cross.  They don’t preach the cross.

Listen to the words of George MacLeod.  He said, “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as the steeple of a church.  I’m recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves, on a town garbage heap at a crossroads of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek.  At the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.  But that’s where He died.  That’s what He died about.  And that’s where Christ’s men ought to be and what church people ought to be about.”

Is our worship of the One true God, the LORD God Almighty, being guided and directed by and to images and idols?  We can find ourselves worshipping the God of the Bible, but doing it incorrectly.  According to the second commandment, that’s just as sinful as worshipping false gods.

The Problem

Why are people driven to break this commandment?  There are a few different problems that would push people toward the use of idols and images.  Number one is peer pressure.  Israel was leaving Egypt who worshipped idols and they were headed into Canaanite territory, another nation that worshipped idols.  Naturally, they would hear somebody somewhere saying, “Hey, here are our idols.  Here are our gods?  Where are yours?”

In fact, that’s exactly what Psalm 115 addresses.  Listen, “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’  Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases.  Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.  They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.  They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.  Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.  O Israel, trust in the Lord!  He is their help and their shield.  O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord!  He is their help and their shield.  You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!  He is their help and their shield” (Psalm 115:2-11).  Do you hear the longing for an idol due to peer pressure, and the psalmist reminding the people not to go there?

Number two is personal loss.  When a person makes an image, they’re making a statement.  They’re saying, “No longer do I have the conscious awareness of the presence of God.  I now need an image to remind me of God.”  And casting that idol is a desperate measure to recover that which was lost.

You see, anybody who lives in communion with God doesn’t need a reminder.  It’s not like you’re walking into the house one day and you see your idol, “Oh yes, God.  I’m glad I saw that, because I had forgotten.”  See, if you live in communion with Him and He’s a reality in your life, you don’t need a reminder.  Friedrich Jacobi, in the 1700’s, a German philosopher, said “Where idolatry ends, there Christianity begins.  And where idolatry begins, their Christianity ends.”

Think about it like this.  I know it’s a silly illustration, but that’s what I do – offer silly illustrations.  How would you feel if somebody said, I
want to spend some time with you, and they came to meet you and sat down to talk with you and pulled out their phone and took a picture of you and then just looked at that picture the entire time?

You’re standing there and you’re watching this person carrying on a conversation with a picture of you, while you’re in the room.  Wouldn’t you feel a little put off?  “Hey wait.  I’m right here.  You want to talk to me, don’t talk to that picture.  Talk to me.  Have a relationship with me.  You don’t need that image.”  As silly as that sounds, that’s exactly what’s taking place when we pull out our Bible bookmark that has a picture of Jesus on it and gaze at it and begin praying or speaking to it.  He’s in the room.  Better than that, He’s in you (if you’re a believer).

There’s a third problem, and that’s the problem of an invisible God.  We just have a hard time relating to a person we can’t see.  We’re visual people.  Samuel said man looks at the outward appearance; God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  How do you have a personal relationship with a person you never see?  Remember the H. G. Wells story “The Invisible Man?”  The story is that a guy, through science, discovers how to make himself invisible, which sounds really cool at first.  You can be in places and listen to conversations, find out what people are doing, push things around in the room.  Sounds pretty fun.

After a while, the invisible man discovers it’s not so fun, because he discovers people don’t trust somebody they don’t see.  So, Isaiah says, “Verily, you are a God who hides Himself” (Isaiah 45:15).  Moses said, “Lord, just show me your glory.  I’ve seen your acts.  I’ve heard your words.  I’ve seen the thunder.  I want to see you.”

That’s why every Christian has a deep longing for Jesus Christ to return.  That’s our hope – one day we’re going to see Him face to face and be totally changed.  No longer will we have to live by faith, but we’ll be able to see Him.  We won’t have to hold on to a promise in Scripture and say, “I can’t see it, but I believe it.”  We’ll see Him.  Titus 2:13, “Waiting for that blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”  So, the bottom line is people want a God they can see and touch.  And one day we will.  Until then, we walk by faith and not by sight of idols and images and statues.

The Proclamation

We’ve seen the prohibition and some of the problems.  Now let’s consider God’s proclamation.  It’s found in the second part of verse 5 and verse 6 “…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.”  So, if we’re not supposed to create images or idols, then how do we see God?  We see Him in His attributes and in His character.

Leading up to the first commandment, God described Himself as the God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of slavery.  That’s redemption.  Now, God is describing Himself as a jealous God.  That’s rivalry.  God will not have you and me – His children – crafting some sculpture or idol that tries to rival Him.  It just won’t work.  It’s the kind of jealousy you’d expect from a husband towards his wife.   In fact, that’s exactly who God is – He’s the Bridegroom and His people are the bride.  He’s protective of those He’s redeemed.  Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the LORD; that is My name; My glory I give to no other, nor My praise to carved idols.”

The second thing we see is His justice.  Now let me tell you what these verses don’t mean.  Listen carefully, because you’re going to be prone to misunderstand me.  The last part of verse 5 doesn’t mean that God will punish children for their parent’s sins.  This is not a generational curse.  Children and grandchildren aren’t punished for their parent’s and grandparent’s sins.  However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be impacted by them.  They won’t be punished for them, but they will be affected by them.

If I murder someone and I’m found guilty, my children don’t go to prison.  I do.  They aren’t punished for my sin.  But, they are affected by it.  God says that those who create idols and images and bow down to them and serve them are setting their families up to follow in their footsteps.  And notice that those who are guilty are those that hate God.  His justice will be served on all who refuse to see Him for who
He is.

And we conclude with one final divine characteristic of our great and mighty God.  His steadfast love.  You just have to love God’s math.  He shows steadfast love to thousands of those that love Him and keep His commandments.  Just three or four generations of justice, but love to thousands.  Do you want to leave your family a legacy?  Then teach them to worship the One true God (commandment 1) and worship Him in spirit and truth – without the aid of idols and images (commandment 2).

When all is said and done, although we’re all longing for the day when we’ll see Jesus face to face and we’ll experience the unveiled majesty and beauty of the Father, the truth is, we don’t need any idols or images.  We have Him.  If you have an authentic, vibrant, daily communion with the Lord Jesus through His Word and in prayer, then the Holy Spirit will give you all the assurance you need.

Jesus said, “This is life eternal, that they might know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent” (John 17:3).  Jesus said, “[He] who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  What a tragedy to embrace a picture and to miss the Person, to sit at a shrine and to miss the Savior, to worship a statue and fail to know Christ.  And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus also gave us His table.  Bread, representative of His body.  Wine, representative of His blood.  And all of it in remembrance of Him – not to be worshipped.

Our God and our Father, we thank you for the way that your Word speaks with such clarity, challenging even the prevailing misconceptions of our day, the things that filter into our minds even within the framework of church, the silly ideas we tolerate, the things we embrace that diminish your glory and misdirect men.  Grant that we may be content and confident in worshipping You – the One and Only living God – in the way that You reveal Yourself: in the person of Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in His body on the cross of Calvary.  And now may grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and forevermore.  Amen.

First Things First – Exodus 20:1-3

Exodus 20:1-3

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Exodus 20:1-3.  Two weeks ago, we started this new series on the 10 Commandments, and we considered some introductory and preliminary remarks.  Today, I want us to consider the first of those 10 Commandments.

In 1952, the Encyclopedia Britannica issued a 55-volume set called The Great Books of the Western World.  It’s a compilation of essays and writings by those (at the time) that were considered the greatest minds and contributors to law, science, medicine, art, etc.  And it was noted that the longest essay was the one on “God.”  When asked about it, the publishing chairman and executive director, Mortimer J. Adler, answered the question by saying, “It’s because more consequences for life follow from this one issue than any other issue.”

Makes sense.  The stakes are so high, no wonder the largest essay would be about God.  So, we come to this first commandment and we discover there’s really three parts to it, or you might say two parts before the command is given.  The first and second component form the rationale for the commandment.  So, we have God’s Claim, God’s Care, and then God’s Command.  Basically, God says, “This is who I am.  This is what I’ve done.  Therefore, this is what I want.”  This is who I am to you.  This is what I’ve done for you.  This is what I want from you

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.’”

“O God, we want to invite You now to have full capability in our own free will, where we invite You to speak to us about key issues of our lives.  We want the Holy Spirit to have absolute freedom to remind us, convict us, encourage us about anything.  And so now we open this book – Your holy Word – and we open our hearts to You.  In Jesus’ name, amen.”

So, we begin where God begins: with Himself.  That’s the top priority.  It’s number one on the list.

God’s Claim

So, go back to verse 2, where the remark begins.  The first words that God speaks are His claim.  This is who I am to you.  “I am the LORD your God.”

I did a little digging this week and discovered that that little phrase, “I am the LORD,” or “I am the LORD your God,” is mentioned 164 times in the Old Testament.  Sometimes, it shows up as “I am the LORD your God,” or “I am the LORD their God,” or I am the Lord who does such and such.  164 times.  Sometimes it’s an introductory remark, as if to say, “Hello, I’m the Lord.”  But more often, it’s a rationale or a basis for what follows.

You remember, as a kid, when your parents told you to do something and you had the gall to ask, “Why?”  And oftentimes your parents would say, “Because I said so.  I’m the parent.  You’re not.”  That used to be sufficient.  If you were smart you’d stop there in your questioning.  That’s kind of what God is saying here.

Think about it.  That’s really all the authority that God needs.  “I am the LORD.”  Now I’ll admit it.  We don’t exactly know how the name of God is pronounced.  Some think it’s Jehovah, or Yavay, or Yahovah.  There are a number of different guesses at it.  And the reason we don’t know is because the Jews never said it.  They only wrote the four consonants that make up the covenant name of God.  They never uttered it.  Thus, we can only guess.  But it’s what God said to Moses when Moses said, “OK, you want me to lead the people of Israel.  Who shall I say sent me?” (Exodus 3:13, paraphrased). And God said, “I AM that I AM” (Exodus 3:14).  Or “I will be that I will be.”  Yahweh.

The name Yahweh signifies the self-existing One, the self-sustaining One, the One whom nobody made up, nobody invented.  This is really who I am.  I made everything.  I sustain everything.  I reveal myself.  In other words, God stake’s His name on His claim when He gives these commandments.  There’s no apology.  There’s no explanation.  There’s no argument for God’s existence.  There’s no philosophical
clarification, just a bold declaration, “I am the LORD your God.”

We interact with people all the time who swear they’re spiritual.  They claim to be spirit-oriented folks.  They talk about God in their own fashion.  You know what I mean?  They say things like, “Well, you know I’ve always pictured God as… My view of God is… Well, you know as I think about it, God must be…”  And what you have is people who aren’t working off the revelation that God gave, but the imagination of their own minds.  And whenever you push away from what God said about Himself, you’ve got to fill it with something and many times you’re left with your own imagination.

As you know, we have several golfers in our congregation and one of those is Steve Fuller.  Well, Steve was frustrated with his golf game, so he went to see Byron Elmore.  Now, if you’re new, or visiting, or you’ve never met Byron.  He’s another member of our congregation and he’s a retired psychologist.  So, Steve goes to see Byron to get some help with his golf game.

And Byron said, “Look, what you do is you go play a game of golf.  Except, this time, use an imaginary ball.”  Steve thought, “I’ve never done that before.”  Byron said, “Trust me.  Go out there and go through all of the motions, take all of the right clubs out, but use an imaginary ball.  Just imagine your ball going down the fairway.  Visualize where you want it to go.”

So, Steve went out a few weeks ago and took out his driver, teed up his imaginary ball, swung, and he imagined it going 260 yards right down the fairway, perfectly straight.  And he stood there and said, “That was a great shot.”  See, he made it up.  Steve went down there with his five iron and then his approach shot and he parred the hole.

He played a whole round of golf till he got to the 18th hole and he saw Paul Vidovich playing exactly the same way – with an imaginary golf ball.  So, Steve went to speak to Paul, and sure enough, they had both been to see Byron.

So, Steve says to Paul, “Hey, why don’t we play the last hole together?  And I’ll bet you $20 on this hole.”  Paul says, “You got yourself a deal.”  So, they get out there, and Steve gets up, swings, and says, “Did you see my shot? 280 yards straight down the fairway.”  Then Paul gets up, tees his imaginary ball, swings and says, “Look at my ball; right next to yours.”

They get down to the fairway and Steve takes out his five iron.  Nice, beautiful swing.  And then he waits a while and says, “Did you see what happened?  My ball hit the edge of the green then that reverse spin brought it back and it went right in the hole.  I win.”  “No, you didn’t,” said Paul, “You just hit my ball.”

See, when you use an imaginary golf ball, you can make anything up.  And so many people go through life with an imaginary God, one that they’ve concocted, one they’ve made up.  It’s a god of their own imagination.  It’s not the God of the Bible.  And we wonder why there are so many different ideas about God in the world?  Short answer is because men throughout history have suppressed the revelation that God gave about Himself.

Romans tells us, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18).  The apostle Paul says, “They’re futile in they’re thinking. They have vain imaginations.  And they suppress the knowledge that God gave at creation.”  So, when God begins His commandments, He stakes His claim based upon His name.  “I am the LORD your God.”  That’s His claim.

God’s Care

Now let’s look at His care.  God goes on to say, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.”  That’s redemption.  That’s redemption that set Israel apart from any other nation in the ancient world.  That’s redemption that the Jews celebrated and still celebrate every Passover.

You can go from Exodus – which is where the Passover begins – throughout the entire Old Testament, and you’ll discover the Israelites always point back to their delivery from the Egyptians.  So, it’s this historical hinge that sets the stage for the first two commandments.  Number one, no other Gods besides me.  Number two, no graven images.

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, 90 days ago you were slaves in a land that oppressed you and tortured you and ridiculed you.  But I delivered you from that land.  Can you name any other god that did that?  Did Osiris (the god of the Nile) help the Egyptians when I judged them?  Did Hecket (the frog goddess) protect you or the Egyptians for my wrath?  Did Geb (the earth god) intervene when I smote all of the cattle of the land with lice?  Did Apis (the strong bull god of valor) protect anybody?  No!  I am the LORD God who delivered you, like no other deity, from the hand of the Egyptians.”

This event – this Passover and Exodus – becomes so paramount that the entire Jewish calendar gets reoriented.  When the Passover was taking place in Exodus 12, the Lord said, “This month shall be the beginning of months to you.  It will be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:1-2).  So, the entire Jewish calendar gets centered around redemption.  It’s a new beginning for Israel.

It’s similar to what some Christians do.  I remember the first time an adult (probably 30 years old), said to me, “I’m two years old today.”  And I thought, “Well, you’re a wing nut today, that’s for sure.  What do you mean you’re two years old?”

No, two years ago I gave my life to Jesus.  I was born again two years ago, and the Bible says if any man is in Christ, he’s a new creation.  Old things are passed away, all things become new.  I go, “I get it now.”  What you’re doing is reorienting your entire earthly life around your redemption from sin through Jesus Christ.  So, who God is and what God had done made Him of supreme value to the children of Israel, and that’s the basis for this commandment.

I’ve always loved what Dennis Avery shared about a Sunday school class.  He was walking through the halls on a Sunday and he heard this particular class praying, and an 8-year-old boy was at the head of the class, and he bowed his head and Dennis Avery heard the boy say, “And God bless our mommies, and bless our daddies, and bless our teachers, and our brothers, and our sisters, and God bless our pets, our dogs and our cats, and God please, please take care of yourself, because if anything happens to you, we’re sunk.”

That’s an 8-year-old’s prayer, but I like his thinking.  Who God is and what God has done in blessing us makes God of supreme value.  So, what has God done for you?  Who is God to you?

God’s Command

That forms the basis of the actual commandment that we get in verse 3.  Here it is, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  God says, this is who I am to you.  This is what I have done for you.  Therefore, this is what I want from you.  And notice that the commandment is just a short, compact, straightforward sentence.  Most of the commandments have little (or no) elaboration.  The commandment itself is a very short, punchy, straightforward saying.  God is the master of the simple.  No other gods.  No graven images.  Honor your mom and dad.  No adultery.  No murder, etc.  And we say to ourselves, “I think I get it.”

There was a woman whose husband died, and she had to put an obituary in the newspaper, so she called the newspaper and she said, print this.  “Bernie is dead.”  That was it.  That was all.  “Bernie is dead.”  The editor said nervously, “Ma’am, if it’s money that’s an issue, you get six words for $25.  You could say a little more.”  She said, “OK, print, Bernie is dead.  Toyota for sale.”

She was a practical gal, if you think about it.  God is very, very practical in these commandments.  I am God.  You are not.  Do this stuff, keep me first.  Like Corrie ten Boom used to say, “Don’t bother to give God instructions, just report for duty.”

So, the number one commandment at the top of the list is no other gods before me.  You could also translate that as no other gods besides me.  I stand alone.  I’m not one among many.  I want all of your devotion, all of your worship, all of your praise, and all of your obedience.  You’re not to worship angels, you’re not to worship people – dead or alive – you’re not to worship theological systems.  You are to worship and serve me, God, Yahweh, the great I AM, and only me.

As we close, I want to frame this for you three ways: historically, pragmatically, and personally.  First is historically.  It’s understandable why God would give this commandment as the first commandment.  Israel had come from Egypt and they were going to Canaan, and both of those nations were guilty of polytheism, henotheism, and syncretism.  Now most of us are at least vaguely familiar with polytheism – the worship of many gods.  In Canaan there would be people there who worshipped the sun god, the moon god, the sand god, the sea god, the river god.  There were all sorts of different gods that controlled that land.

But in Canaan, there was also a twist on the normal, run-of-the-mill polytheism.  It’s called henotheism.  It’s where there are many gods and goddesses, but each one has a limited jurisdiction.  Sort of like a neighborhood drug lord.  This is my hood.  Stay out of it.  I’m in charge of this section.  So, when nations would fight each other, they saw it as the gods behind that particular area duking it out.

And that helps us understand certain portions of the Old Testament.  For example, 1 Kings 20, when the Israelites are fighting the Syrians, and the Israelites win the first couple of battles in that war and the Syrians wonder “Why are the Israelites winning and we’re not?”  Listen to 1 Kings 20:23, “And the servants of the king of Syria said to him, ‘[The Israelite’s] gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we.  But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely, we shall be stronger than they.’”  Hey, we’re fighting this battle in that god’s jurisdiction, the hills.  Let’s move the battle down to the valley, because we serve the valley gods.  And if we fight in that jurisdiction, we’re going to win.

And if you keep reading that story you’ll discover that God knew that the Syrians believed in henotheism, and because of that God gave the Israelites a tremendous victory over the allied Syrian armies.  So that’s henotheism and polytheism, but there’s a third, and this was the worst of all: syncretism.

This was Israel’s sin.  They took God and added Him to the worship of other gods, thus reducing the only true God to the same level as Baal, Ashteroth, Molech, and all of the other false gods of Canaan.  So, they worshipped God and other things.  That was the big problem.  That’s why Elijah, the prophet, would stand on Mount Carmel and sort of put the gavel down and say, “Listen, how long will you falter between two opinions?  If Baal is God, then worship him.  If God is God, if Yahweh is God, then worship Him.  But you can’t have both.  It’s one or the other.”

So, we get the picture pretty clear historically.  God wants no rivals.  He wants no competition at all.  No other gods before Him.  And some of us here today might be flirting with our own version of syncretism.  God and other things.  So, historically God would say this.  We can understand that.

We can also understand pragmatically why God would give this commandment.  God is very practical.  God understands us, because He made us.  God knows that nothing is going to satisfy the human heart except our relationship with Him.  He made us that way.  The Bible says we’re subject to vanity or subject to emptiness.  We’re never going to be totally fulfilled until we’re in right relationship with the right God.  Nothing else will satisfy our hearts.

This is a silly illustration, but you might say worshipping anything or anyone other than God is sort of like hugging a mannequin.  Would you go up in a store and say, just a minute.  That mannequin looks very lonely.  I need to hug it.  I need to spend some time with it.  (Perhaps in today’s messed up world you might actually hear and see someone doing that.)  But a mannequin isn’t a real person.

In Psalm 115, David does something really clear, really brilliant.  He does something in a song form.  He makes a contrast between the living God and the non-gods in the culture around him.  And so, he’s contrasting the true and the living God with all of the pagan deities that were worshipped in statue form, in stone form and wood form.  And this is what David says concerning the other gods, “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.  They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.  Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:5-8).  But our God, he says, is the living and true God.

You see, in real life you need a real God.  In real life, you need a God who can hear.  In real life, you need a God who can respond in some capacity.  In real life, you need a strong God.  In real life, you need a God who will never leave you or forsake you.  And so historically and pragmatically we understand why God would give this as the first commandment.

Finally, personally.  Let’s close on that note.  We need to understand this commandment on a personal level.  The Lord is saying, “I’m your God by creation.  I’m your God by redemption.  Now, I want to be your God by devotion.  This is who I am to you.  This is what I’ve done for you.  This is what I want from you.”

So, in personalizing it, I want to ask you a personal question, and then I want to call on you to make a personal decision.  Here’s the personal question.  What do you think about in quiet moments?  Where does your mind go when you’re alone?

You know, you can take a compass and you can go in all sorts of different directions.  Turn it upside down, go around in circles, but when you just put it down on the table and let it sit, if it works, it’ll find true north.  Our minds are sort of like the needle of a compass.  They can focus on a number of things during the day, but when left to settle, where does your mind point?  What do you think about?  A girl?  A guy?  A goal?  Perhaps your regrets?  Having something?  Accomplishing something?  The Bible says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).  So, what do you think about in quiet moments?

And then, if you discover, “You know, I don’t think about God much,” then it’s time to make a personal choice.  Now granted, most everyone here has already made the personal choice to exalt Jesus Christ, to be a Christian, to follow Him.  But from time to time we need to re-evaluate our lives and ask ourselves if it’s true that first things are first in our lives?  Is God first in my life?

Today, maybe you need to repent and renew your commitment to the Lord.  Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters. He’s going to love one and hate the other, be loyal to one and despise the other.  You can’t serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).  One or the other.  In the last part of the book of Joshua – do you remember what he said?  “Choose you this day whom you will serve, whether you’re going to serve the gods that your fathers served on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you now dwell.  But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).  I’m going to serve the Lord.  I’m making a choice.

Saint Augustine said it beautifully in a prayer, “Lord you have made us for yourself and we are restless until we find our rest in Thee.”  Who’s your God?  Who delivered you?  Who shows up when you have a need?  Who’s number one in your life?  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.”

“Father, look upon our hearts today.  You know us.  You made us.  We don’t want to pretend before you.  We don’t want to play at church.  We don’t want to be simply sloganeers walking out from here.  We want Your truth to take root in our hearts.  We want You to help us to get rid of little gods that we’ve begun to include in our thinking: gods of our looks, gods of our ego, gods of our success, gods of our acquisitions.  Help us, Lord, not to worship there.  And then help us tomorrow, when we feel like worshipping there again, to remember that we said today that we didn’t want to worship there.  Help us to help one another in this, ’cause all of us are learners from the One who knows the answers.

And may the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to Himself, may the joy of the Lord Jesus give us strength to obey His commands, and may the peace of the Lord Jesus keep our hearts and minds, today and forevermore.  Amen.”

God’s Top Ten – Exodus 19:16-20:17

Exodus 19:16-20:17

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Exodus 19. We’re beginning a new series today on the 10 Commandments and I’ve titled the first message God’s Top 10. Everybody has a Top 10. The FBI has it’s top 10 Most Wanted. David Letterman used to have a Top 10 every night. One of my favorites, although I don’t get to see them often, is ESPN’s Top 10 plays of the week. So, let me ask you what’s your Top 10. Maybe it’s your Top 10 movies, or cars, or travel destinations, or songs, or Bible verses?

As you think about your Top 10’s, I want you to notice something about your lists. Unless someone specifically asked you to name your Top 10 most disliked in a specific category, almost every Top 10 list that we create is made up of our favorites. Have you noticed that? They’re special. They’re the most meaningful to us. They’re what we (the giver of the list) consider to be the best. Well, the same is true for God. His Top 10 sheds light on what He considers the best rules for life.

So, I’m going to take us back to Exodus 19, even though the 10 Commandments are found in chapter 20. We want to look at some preliminaries this morning, before we settle into each of the 10 commandments over the coming weeks. I want us to ask a few questions. Why study them? What were they, exactly? Why were they given? And what relevance do they have for our lives today, if any? So, we go back to Exodus 19 – beginning in verse 16 and continuing through Exodus 20:17.

16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.

21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. 22 Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.” 23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You Yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

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.

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.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Our God and our Father, we’re grateful for the revelation of You that we have in the Bible – that every portion of it reflects a different aspect of Your character, all of it to be studied and considered and applied. Lord, it’s marvelous how the Holy Spirit seems to take what we read on Sunday and brings it to bear in our lives the rest of the week. We pray that would happen again. In Jesus’ name, amen.

So, the first question I want us to tackle is why study them?

Why Study Them (Importance)

The argument in some Christian circles runs like this, “We’re believers of the New Covenant, which was made in the blood of Jesus shed on the cross for our sins, and the Bible says that because of Jesus’ sacrifice we’re no longer under the Law, but under grace. Therefore, I don’t need to be concerned about the Law and since the 10 Commandments are part of the Mosaic law, I’m not bound by them.”

That statement, or something similar to it, is referred to as antinomianism (meaning “against the law” – anti is “against” and nomos is “law”). What the person has done, perhaps unintentionally, is to take a biblical teaching and apply it in such a way as to arrive at an unbiblical conclusion. Let me untie the knot and we’ll move on to why we should study the 10 Commandments.

Here’s the knot. The biblical teaching is that Christians are not required to observe the Old Testament Law as a means of salvation. That’s true. When Jesus Christ died on the cross, He fulfilled the Old Testament Law. Romans 10:4 says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” In Ephesians, the letter that we just finished studying, Paul says that Jesus death “abolish[ed] the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:15-16). So, it’s true that we’re not saved by keeping the Law.

But the unbiblical conclusion that’s smuggled into the statement is that there’s no moral law that God expects Christians to obey. That’s not true. 1 John 5:3 tells us, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” Perhaps you remember Jesus’ response to one of the Pharisees in Matthew 22, when He was asked about the greatest commandment, “And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”

Now some of you are thinking, “Yes, I follow all of that, but Jesus didn’t quote the 10 Commandments in His response. He simply said to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s true. Jesus didn’t explicitly give the 10 Commandments as His response, but what we’re going to discover is that the first 4 commandments are focused on our relationship with God and the last 6 are focused on our relationship with our neighbor. So, while Jesus didn’t explicitly say, “Obey the 10 commandments,” His response certainly carried that implication.

The straight line is this: we are NOT saved by keeping the Law, but by grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus. That’s how we’re saved. At the same time, we’re called to live holy and righteous lives – often marked by keeping God’s commandments – and that’s only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let me offer one final verse to hopefully clarify this. 1 John 2:3-6 says, “We know that we have come to know [Jesus] if we keep His commands. Whoever says, ‘I know [Jesus],’ but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys [Jesus’] word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in [Jesus]: Whoever claims to live in [Jesus] must live as Jesus did.”

So, we’re not free to ignore the 10 Commandments. We’re saved by grace through faith and we’re called to live holy lives. Quickly, let me give you five (5) more reasons we should study the 10 Commandments.

They’re found in Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Part of the “all” Scripture that Paul is referring to there is Exodus 20. The Bible is God’s curriculum. It’s His owner’s manual. It’s His revelation to us.

They’re foundational to faith. Let me ask you this question: What was the Bible that Jesus quoted from? The Old Testament. Whenever Jesus said, “It is written…” He was quoting from what is now our Old Testament. Many Christians don’t understand the foundations of our faith. Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:7). If Jesus came to fulfill the Law, doesn’t it make sense that we should know something about the very law that He came to fulfill?

They’re fundamental to society. American jurisprudence used to have its basis in the 10 Commandments. I’m not so sure these days. C.S. Lewis, speaking about the 10 Commandments, in his book The Abolition of Man says, “Many ancient cultures have a surprising agreement in these ethical and moral standards despite cultural differences. Man has a basic understanding of these standard that God has established for His creation.”

They’re forsaken in the culture. When you push God’s law to the side, you’ve got to fill that space with something and what our culture has filled it with is relativism. There’s no absolute truth anymore. What’s good for you may not be good for me. My truth may not be your truth. What was once evil we call good, and what was good we now call evil. If that sounds familiar that’s what Isaiah says happens to a nation when they forsake the law of the Lord (Isaiah 5).

They’re forgotten by the church. What’s true of the culture has revealed itself to be true in some Christian circles too. A Barna poll from 2016 indicates that 62% of professing Christians say there’s no absolute standard of right and wrong. It goes on to say, “In some denominations, the vast majority of clergy do not have a biblical worldview, and it shows up clearly in the data related to the theological views and moral choices of people who attend those churches.”

What Were They (Substance)

Well, they’re part of a greater covenant that God made with the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We all remember the story; after the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, 90 days later they end up at the base of Mount Sinai where God calls Moses to re-establish His covenant and gives him these 10 Commandments, not 10 suggestions, or 10 ideas, or 10 proposals. Exodus 19:7 says, “So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.”

Also notice that there are 10 of them, not 5, or 19, just 10. And these 10 are sufficient to give us God’s “general will” concerning the great issues of life. And these instructions weren’t just limited to outward actions. While murder and adultery and stealing are external, there are commandments, like coveting, that focus on the internal attitudes of the heart. In fact, Paul says, in Romans 7, that it was coveting that awakened him to the reality of his sin. “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness” (Romans 7:7-8).

And that was Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount, wasn’t it? You have heard that it was said you shall not murder, but I say to you, if you’re angry with your brother without cause, you’re in danger of judgment. You’ve heard that it was said by those of old that you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that if you look upon another woman to lust after her in your heart, you’ve committed adultery (Matthew 5:21-28, paraphrased). The Law governs external actions and internal attitudes.

That brings us to the third question for us to consider.

Why Were They Given (Significance)

Well, let me give us four (4). First, they were given to regard God. In other words, they were given to show visible, tangible expression of our love of God. Again, in Exodus 19:5 you’ll find an “if/then” construction, “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples.” Our obedience is one way that we demonstrate our love of God.

Second, they were given to relate man to man. Now follow me here. The first four commandments are what we call “theocentric,” meaning they have everything to do with how we relate to God. The last six are “anthropocentric,” meaning they’re man-centered. They have everything to do with how we relate to one another.

Third, they were given to restrain evil. If you gave man complete and unfettered reign to do as he pleases, it would be pandemonium and chaos all the time. Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Understand this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:9-10). So, these commandments, like all laws, were given to restrain the raging evil and sinfulness of human nature.

Fourth, they were given to reveal our need. Do you remember when you were introduced to a microscope for the first time? It was probably in junior high or high school, and your teacher said, “Take out one of your hairs from your head and put it under the microscope.” Now, you just washed your hair and it was silky and smooth, and you thought it was the best hair on the block until you put it under the microscope. Do you remember what it looked like? Gnarly, nasty, irregular, big cuts in the shaft. That was your hair under the microscope. Our lives under the microscope of the law looks that way for a reason. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says the law was our schoolmaster, our tutor, to drive us to Jesus. It shows us our need.

So, we’ve looked at their importance, their substance, their significance, and lastly their relevance.

What Do They Mean (Relevance)

What are we supposed to do with these verses? Well, there are at least four (4) ways we can apply these verses, even today.

Number one, treat them as a compass. As we look at these individual commandments over the next several weeks, we’re going to see 10 categories, 10 reference points for us to use in order to make our way through life, things we don’t ever have to pray about. They’re just fixed. You never have to say, “You know, although I’m married, I’m really interested in this other person and I’m sort of thinking about having an affair, so I’m going to pray about that.” You don’t even need to pray about that. It’s done. We’re going to find 10 principles that will be our reference points and give us direction.

Number two, treat them as a thermometer. Thermometers measure temperature, and these 10 commandments are a great way to measure our love for the things of God. Are we hot or cold when it comes to the things that God says are important? We saw we love God, but what does the gauge of our obedience say?

Number three, treat them as a mirror. We all have a love/hate relationship with the mirror. They tell us the truth. That’s what the 10 Commandments do. They tell us the truth. They don’t fix the problem, but they do a really good job of showing us where the problem area is.

Fourth, and finally, treat them as a road sign pointing us to Jesus. Okay, so we’re going to see the truth about ourselves, the dirt so to speak, and it ought to motivate us to run for cleansing and that’s in the blood of Jesus.

I love the story of the young boy that got lost in London. At the heart of the city is an intersection called Charing Cross. All distances across the city are measured from its central point. Locals refer to it simply as “the cross.” One day a little boy became lost in the bustling city, and a police officer heard his cries and came to his aid to try and help him return to his family.

The bobby asked the little boy a variety of questions in an attempt to discover where the boy lived, to no avail. Finally, with tears streaming down the boy’s face, he said, “If you will take me to the cross I think I can find my way from there.”

Each week, the commandments are going to point us to the cross. That’s where we find our way home. Not because we kept the law perfectly in attitude or actions, but I need to be cleansed and forgiven and changed, and it only comes through Jesus.

Fuel for the Fight – Ephesians 6:18-20

Ephesians 6:18-20

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn, for the final time, to Ephesians 6. Today’s message is the last in our series on Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus.

Many of you know that I’ve acquired a new truck, and this new truck is a diesel, and thus it requires diesel fuel. Now that’s not a major issue, but when you have to re-educate your family, particularly your teenage boys, on the importance of using the right fuel, well it can be a challenge. Habits are hard to break, as you know, and this is true when pulling into the gas station to fill up. So, there’s this constant reminder when they drive my truck of two important facts: 1.) it’s not a race car – that’s true of all vehicles teenagers drive – and, 2.) “Remember, it takes diesel.” So, when I ran across this story from pastor and author David Jeremiah it rang true.

I was invited to speak at a Bible conference back on the East Coast. It meant a sort of mini-vacation for my family. The conference was several miles from where my family was staying, so I borrowed a car from a friend at the conference to drive over and see them. I noticed that the car I had borrowed was a bit unusual. Right on the front of the hood it said, “Oldsmobile Diesel,” and there were also words on the fuel gauge that said “Diesel Fuel Only.”

Immediately after filling up it started to sputter and choke and belch out great clouds of exhaust, and finally stopped right in the middle of the small, rural New York town I was passing through. People in town gathered around to see what was wrong, and an old farmer began asking questions. When I told him that it was a diesel and that I had just finished filling it up, he raised the hood and immediately said, “Son, diesel engines don’t have spark plugs, and this engine does. You don’t have a diesel engine.” My friend had recently converted the car from diesel to regular unleaded, but had failed to mention it to me.

He continued with this thought. As I thought about that incident over the years, it became a great illustration to me of the spiritual life. We have the label “human being” pasted all over us (like my friend’s diesel car); but as Christians, we’ve been converted. Our spiritual lives won’t run on the same kind of fuel they used to. We sputter, choke, and ultimately come to an embarrassing standstill if we don’t fuel ourselves with the right kind of fuel.

Of course, the fuel for the Christian life is prayer. Without prayer, we simply cannot maintain the power and energy needed to be victorious in the fight that’s known as the Christian life. It’s no more possible to live the Christian life without prayer than it is to run a gasoline engine on diesel. Paul concludes his teaching on spiritual warfare with an emphasis on prayer, and so will we.

18 [P]raying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Gracious God, as we turn now to the Bible, we pray for the help, the enabling of the Holy Spirit, to teach and to listen, to understand, to believe, to obey, to live in the light of its truth. Accomplish Your purposes in us, Lord, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, as we come to the end of Ephesians – and we’ve spent some significant time in this final section – it’s important for us and helpful for us to keep in mind that this is not a section that exists on its own. It’s the closing part of one letter, and it’s also the concluding part of what we referred to, as we began chapter 4, as the more practical part of the letter.

You might remember – when we started this series several months ago – that we noted the structure of Paul’s letter. It’s 6 chapters broken down the middle into 2 sections. The first section (chapters 1-3) focuses on the indicatives, which means the first section is Paul’s statement of doctrinal facts. This is who we are “in Christ.” This is our identity as “children of God.” Then, after establishing the facts (as it were), he switches in the second section (chapter 4-6) and offers the imperatives – the “so whats,” the “therefores,” the “what we do in response” section.

So, chapter 4 begins with a call to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, and that means putting off the old self and putting on the new. It means getting rid of certain behaviors and lifestyles and embracing new ones. It means walking alongside others in the family of God – people from different backgrounds and stages of life. It means walking in a worthy manner in our marriages (as husbands and wives), walking in a worthy manner in our homes (as parents and children), and walking in a worthy manner in our jobs (as employers and employees). And Paul concludes his letter (in chapter 6) by saying, “Hey, all of this walking in a worthy manner is actually being done in a war zone, in a battlefield, in a spiritual conflict between people who are seeking to follow Jesus and the enemy, Satan. Therefore, we need to take up the armor of God.” And so, it’s from there that we conclude our study of Ephesians by considering the fuel for the fight.

There are four “alls” that are listed in verses 18-20, and they will provide the framework for today’s message.

Praying at All Times

First of all, then, our praying is to be “at all times” (v. 18).

Whenever we’re on the receiving end of an exhortation from someone, it’s almost inevitable that we say, “Well, I wonder if he/she is actually doing that?” And we need be in no doubt concerning Paul, because we can go back through the letter and find him saying, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:16). In other words, he’s absolutely true to what he’s now urging us to do. He’s praying all the time.

And that brings me to this thought: this whole matter of consistency or constancy of prayer is (if we’re honest) something we’ve all struggled with. Alistair Begg shares the story of a friend named T.S. Mooney, who has since died and is living in heaven. Mooney was a bachelor his entire life. He was a banker and taught a boys’ Bible class. He lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and one day Begg asked Mooney, “What’s your plan and purpose with these boys?” To which Mooney replied, “My plan for the Bible class has always been to give every boy a Bible in his hand, a Savior in his heart, and a purpose in his life.”

Mooney routinely prayed for each boy, and kept in touch with them as they grew up. Begg said that when he visited Mooney in his apartment one day, Mooney had photos of men who were judges, and surgeons, and teachers, and mechanics, and plumbers and all sorts of other professions – all of whom were influenced by Mooney’s teaching and prayers.

Mooney died in 1986. His housekeeper found him in the morning – fully dressed and kneeling over his bed. As she pulled Mooney back from the bed, she found a little black book alongside his Bible. It contained the names of all the boys/men that had gone through his classes, along with the other people and ministries he prayed for regularly.

Whose ministry is being held up on the strength of our disciplined commitment to prayer? Some of you are prayer partners to people. Do you realize what an amazing privilege that is, that you’re able to go to the living God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, and seek Him on behalf of a brother or a sister? All the time? Continually. Not spasmodically. But you know, such a call makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Because the battle goes on continually; therefore, the need for prayer is in the same realm.

In short order, this call to pray “at all times” is an expression of our dependence upon God. It’s not optional; it’s essential, it’s impossible for us to enjoy an intimate relationship with God without it, no less than the fact that you can’t enjoy an intimate relationship with your spouse apart from the engagement of communication. Not necessarily talking all the time! You can drive in the car for fifteen or twenty miles and never talk. But there’s communion.

Praying with All Prayers

Then the second “all,” you will see, is right there in the text as well: “Praying at all times,” and then, “with all prayer and supplication.” What does that mean? Well, the word “supplication” comes from the Greek word deésis. It means “to be in need.” That’s helpful, and I think that’s exactly what Paul is saying. He’s talking about the way in which we come to God in prayer.

Some of you have heard me refer to the ACTS prayer model. It’s an acrostic – where each letter in the word A-C-T-S represents something else. “A” is for adoration. We begin our prayers by acknowledging who we’re praying to and give Him adoration and praise. “C” stands for confession. Martin Luther said, repentance is not only something that begins our Christian life but is a daily experience; saying to God in the course of a day, catching ourselves, “I confess to you, Father, that I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5, paraphrased). “T” is for thanksgiving. Leona Von Brethorst wrote a hymn called He Has Made Me Glad and it includes these words:

I will enter His gates with thanksgiving in my heart,
I will enter His courts with praise;
I will say this is the day that the Lord has made,
I will rejoice, for He has made me glad.

And what’s really amazing is learning that we don’t just thank God when the skies are blue and the breeze is at our back. In fact, simply acknowledging that “this is the day the Lord has made” immediately reminds me that He’s God and I’m not. I didn’t see to it that the sun came up this morning. I didn’t see to it that I slept all through the night and woke up healthy today, instead of dying in my sleep. Many of us just assume these things – as if God isn’t extending His grace to us each and every day that the sun comes up. Finally, “S” stands for supplication, or petition, or expression of our need. It’s coming to God and acknowledging that it’s entirely legitimate to ask, to knock, to seek (Matthew 7:7). Indeed, He tells us to do this. He bids us come and tell Him exactly what’s going on and where our concern lies and what we’re really interested in. And sometimes they’re big things, and other times they’re small things.

Folks, this is one area of my Christian life that’s a chore. It’s not a chore to pray, but it’s a chore to make sure that I don’t fall into the habit of saying the same thing time and time again. In fact, I said to myself this week (as did the disciples), “Lord, teach me to pray” (Luke 11:1). “Teach me to pray when I walk along the road, when I lie down, when I get up. Teach me to pray formal and structured prayers, as I have to. Teach me to pray standing or kneeling, audibly or inaudibly, publicly or privately. Teach me to pray groaning. Teach me to pray crying. Just teach me to pray.”

You see, often prayer is actually in the groaning and in the crying. You know, it’s true that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). You remember when Isaiah, in the midst of his circumstances, he says, “Oh! that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1). There’s a ton just in the “oh.” God listens to our “ohs.” He listens to our groans. In fact, Paul says that the Holy Spirit actually makes sense of our groans, (Romans 8:26) so that we pray constantly, and we pray variously.

Praying with All Perseverance

And thirdly, we pray “with all perseverance.” In other words, we dare not be overcome by carelessness. You remember Jesus’ conversation with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest, “Watch and pray [so] that you [do] not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). And they did neither. They didn’t watch and they didn’t pray. What did they do? (They slept.)

In many ways, what we have here is an echo of the words of Jesus. But it’s also in keeping with what Paul said to the Ephesian elders in Acts chapter 20. Before he left them, he said to them, “After my departure there will arise fierce wolves who will seek to draw away people after them and draw them away from all that I have taught you about Jesus and about the gospel” (Acts 20: 29-31, paraphrased). And so, he says, “Keep alert! Stay awake! Be watchful!” And it’s the watchfulness which then is the key to the perseverance. Sinclair Ferguson, in his commentary on Ephesians, says, “Christ is building His church on territory that has been occupied by an enemy. Alertness is always essential when living in a war zone.”

Perseverance is tough. It’s hard. No matter what you’re doing – whether it’s playing a sport, or exercising, or being married – sticking it out, gutting it out, hanging in there to the bitter end is part of what it means to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). That doesn’t mean that we work to earn our salvation. No, it means that we persevere in our obedience to Jesus, and as we persevere to the end we actually demonstrate and confirm that we’re actually saved. In 1 John 2:19 we read a warning about the end times and false teachers and people that “claimed to be” saved walking away from the faith. Listen, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Praying with all perseverance is one of those areas of our Christian lives that’s tempting to quit, tempting to give up on.

Most of us remember the days before computers and e-mail. Some of you even remember the days before home telephones. I remember being in elementary school and also in Bible school at church and having pen pals – friends that we would write back and forth to. In those days’ answers didn’t come immediately. You would write a letter and then maybe 2-3 weeks later you’d get a response. We learned to wait. But today, when you can call and text and e-mail, we get upset when we see a text is delivered and read and we don’t get an immediate response.

Jesus even told a parable in Luke 18 about a persistent widow, and the introduction to that parable says, “And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, once said, “some blessings are like ripe fruit in autumn, which falls readily into our hands; but for some blessings, you need to give the tree a good shaking.” And some of us have been shaking some of these branches for a while, have we not? Some of us are going to have to be content to trust God that He will fulfill His covenant promises, and that should we not see it this side of eternity, we will on the far side realize that God who loves us, the God who reigns, the God whose will is best, will fulfill His promises. And in that, we continue.

Praying for All the Saints

That brings us to the fourth and final “all.” “Praying at all times,” constantly. “Praying with all prayer,” variously. “Praying with all perseverance,” unstintingly. “Praying for All the Saints,” expansively or globally.

Now, I looked at this again and again. I said, “It would have been so much easier if it had said ‘some’ instead of ‘all.’” Because then we could’ve all relaxed, you know. Praying sometimes: “Oh, yes, I do it sometimes.” And some perseverance: “Yes…” And for some of the saints. Because there’s a number of them I don’t want to pray for!

You see, it’s natural and it’s entirely legitimate for us to pray about our own personal needs. The Bible encourages us to do that – to bring the concerns of our own hearts and our own homes to Him. But when we ONLY do that, we’re no different from unbelievers. That’s what non-Christians think about prayer. It’s something that’s like a divine ATM that you can get stuff for yourself if you just go about it the right way. No, what Paul is calling for is to look beyond ourselves to the needs of “all the saints.”

Our prayers, individually and corporately, will always languish and will finally stutter to a halt without two things: 1.) a God-centered perspective, and 2.) a God-centered trust. So, in other words, we’re asking ourselves, “What’s God’s plan for the world? What’s God promised to do?” Well, He’s promised to put together a people that are His very own from every tribe and nation and language and tongue. Therefore, we can legitimately pray to the end that many people from many places, both in our own immediate area and throughout the entire globe, will become the committed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, we pray for saints in Afghanistan, and Somalia, and Sudan, and North Korea, and China, in addition to the saints in America, and S.C., and Greer, and Greenville, and Landrum.

We have to acknowledge that if we’re going to pray for all the saints, it’s going to force us to a radical shift in perspective. It’s going to call us as Americans to stop seeing the world as spinning outwards from Washington, D.C. or wherever we are. Listen, have you noticed how modern maps have changed. Used to, when you were going on a trip you had to pull out the road atlas. You had to stop in a gas station and buy a map of the state or city that you were in. Remember those days? Now, with the advent of the smart phone and GPS navigation all you have to do is plug in your destination and instead of traveling from “A” to “B,” we travel from “me” to “B.” Did you notice that clever little shift? The focus has shifted from having a global perspective to only having a self-centered perspective. Because every time I look at a map, guess what? I’m at the center. And yet, there’s a world of people (correction: saints) out there that need our prayers.

The task to reach the world for Jesus Christ is unfinished. And the task won’t ever be accomplished absent God-centered praying. Without sincere, sensible, Spirit-filled outpouring of our souls to God, asking Him for such things as He has promised – His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Father, we bow down before You, and we acknowledge the mystery, the necessity, and the calling of prayer. We desperately need the enabling of the Holy Spirit in this righteous endeavor. Lord, we ask that you teach us how to pray at all times, and pray with all kinds of prayers, and pray with all perseverance, and pray for all the saints. As we approach Your table, God, we ask that You come and sit with us, be with us, draw near to us. May Your Holy Spirit fill the hearts of us, Your faithful, and enkindle within us the fire of Your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Armor of God (Part 2) – Ephesians 6:14-18a

Ephesians 6:14-18a

As always, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Ephesians 6.

Last week we began considering the picture that Paul paints for us in these final verses of a spiritual battle. And let’s be honest, at least in the church, we’re a little bit uncomfortable talking about spiritual warfare. It could be that we’re unfamiliar with the concept that we’re at war against Satan and his demons. This language is just strange to us. We’re vaguely aware of medieval art and Hollywood portraits of the Devil, and we’d just assume not think about that.

In a similar vein, it could be the fact that we live day to day without much fallout, without much in the way of consequences, without much in the way of evidence that this battle is indeed raging. We get up. We get ready and we go about our day checking off our lists of accomplishments – whether that’s going to work, or going to the grocery store, or taking someone to a doctor’s appointment – and then we come home and do a little yard work or house work and eat dinner and go to bed. And we never really have a sense that we’re in this spiritual war.

But perhaps, even greater than that, it is the fact that we’ve been conditioned, in our western American churches, to focus solely on the Bible’s portrayal of Jesus and God in loving and merciful terms rather than in terms reminiscent of war and bloodshed and horror and so forth. That is to say, most of us grew up with an emphasis upon these images: “the Lord is my Shepherd…” (Psalm 23:1) or God as our loving Father, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20) or God as our King, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). And indeed, He is our Redeemer, our Savior, our Father, our Shepherd and King – and we praise Him for that.

But the Bible also describes God in these terms: “The LORD is a man of war…” (Exodus 15:3) or “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle…” (Psalm 144:1) or “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11). And indeed, God is our Rock, our Shield, our Fortress, and our Commander – and we praise Him that He is.

This morning, we’re going to continue our examination and meditation upon the armor of God as outlined for us here in Ephesians 6. So, let me invite you to follow along with me as I read our text.

14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

Our gracious God, thank You that one of the means employed to hold us fast is in Your Word itself. And so, as we turn to it now, we pray that You will bring it home to our minds and to our hearts in such a way that we trust and believe and follow Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Last week we considered the first three pieces of armor that Paul mentions. We were drawn to the fact that Paul starts with a piece of clothing that most of us wouldn’t even include in our portrait: the belt. And he equates it with truth. How vital it is for us – in this day and age where truth is under attack and seems to be whatever people want it to be – that we begin each day buckling up with the truth of God. We stopped long enough to notice that this means objective truth (i.e. God is truth) and subjective truth (i.e. we’re called to be people that tell the truth as opposed to telling lies).

We also recognized the importance of the breastplate of righteousness – the Kevlar vest, the modern body armor – that covers the vital organs: the heart, the lungs, the liver, the spleen. How important it is for us to protect these organs, if we’re to live. And this reminds us that without the righteousness of Christ covering our sinful hearts we’re exposed to the holy and pure gaze of the Lord. But thanks be to God Christ shed His blood, and by our confession and trust the blood of Jesus covers our sins.

Finally, we considered another overlooked piece of armor: the shoes of the gospel of peace. We think about what it feels like to walk barefoot outside on gravel or at the beach on hot sand – how tender our feet are. Then we compare that to the confidence that we have when we walk on that same terrain wearing boots or flip flops – some kind of footwear that allows us to move about freely. The gospel, the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the free gift of God’s grace through Jesus gives us peace with the Father. Paul puts it this way in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

By the way, let me pause and just interjection something super important here. Let’s not read the verses and think that we have to win the battle in order to make it to heaven. The victory is already ours. Amen? Jesus has already won! If you’re “in Christ” today, if you’ve repented of your sin, if you’ve recognized your need for a Savior, and you’ve acknowledged Jesus as the Lord of your life, then victory is assured.

See, it’s possible to hear me say “Try and be as much like Jesus as you possibly can, because it will be good for you, and others will benefit also.” That’s not what I want you to hear. Paul’s writing here isn’t an attempt to get us to become something (present tense). It’s the reality that in Christ we have been made something (past sense).  When we came to trust in Christ, He already clothed us with the gospel armor. We already have all of these pieces of the armor. All Paul is doing, and all that we’re doing today, is reminding ourselves of the armor that’s already at our disposal because we’re in Christ.

You say, “Well, pastor, if the battle is already over and the victory is already ours, then why do I feel this internal anguish when I sin, why do I sense the pressure to compromise the teaching of the Bible on things like sexuality and marriage and the inerrancy of the Bible, and so forth, why do I travel to places or visit people and get a real sense of darkness and evil if the battle is already over and the victory is won?”

I heard someone describe this paradox using the language of a chess game. If you’ve ever played chess, then you know that the winning move is called checkmate. When you have your opponent in checkmate they still have a move, right. The ball is in their court, so to speak. It’s their move, but any move they make means the game is over. That’s kind of like the spiritual reality of Jesus defeating Satan. The game is over. Checkmate has already been sounded from heaven, but Satan technically still has a move – although whatever move he makes will end in his ultimate destruction.

Today we’re going to resume and cover the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. This last one isn’t primarily armor. In fact, some would argue that it’s offensive in nature and doesn’t act as armor at all. Nevertheless, we’re going to include it.

The Shield of Faith

Scripture often refers to God as our shield. For example, Genesis 15:1 says, “After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” The Psalmist writes these words in Psalm 5:12, “For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favor as with a shield.” Or how about this from Proverbs 30:5, “Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.” So, what does this mean when we come to Ephesians 6? Let me give it to you in a sentence: we are taking up the shield of faith when we are trusting the gospel to shield us from Satan’s lies. Trusting in God – that is, lifting up the shield of faith – is to rest in Him as our protector, as the One who keeps the assaults of the Devil from destroying us.

He does this for all of His people in an ultimate sense, guarding us that we might persevere in faith. But the Lord also shields us from temptation as we look to Him daily to help us walk in holiness. When we remember to turn to Him in our hour of need, He will direct us faithfully on the right path and help us make decisions that will honor Him.

The actual shield that Paul’s metaphor would have brought to mind for his first-century audience was not a small disc, but rather it was a large, body-length shield. Again, think Gladiator featuring Russell Crowe. If you’ve ever seen that movie the Praetorian Guards – the guys dressed in black that guarded the Caesar – they carried this type of shield. There were a few instances in that movie where you actually saw a group of soldiers form a protective barrier using these massive shields. That’s what the shield of faith does. It serves as a wall, or a barrier against the flaming arrows of the enemy.

Our faith isn’t itself a substance that has magical sheltering properties, but because it’s the means by which we lay hold of God and all His promises, it protects us from the fiery arrows, the darts, the missiles of the Evil One. Those flaming arrows may be ugly thoughts and memories from your past. It could be things like lust, lies, rumors, gossip, jealousy, covetousness, temptations of all kinds. Take up the shield of faith and rest in Christ, who absorbed the blows of temptation and even demonic attack, finally emerging victorious. Turn to Him (daily) in faith, as evil forces are too powerful for us to resist on our own.

The Helmet of Salvation

This piece, like the breastplate of righteousness, is easier for us to accommodate. A soldier’s helmet, even today, protects his/her head and is an essential piece of the armor for the battlefield.

The Roman soldier’s helmet was a combination of decoration and protection. You’ve seen pictures of it with a plume on the top, often made of brass or of bronze, filled with felt or with sponge in order to make it possible to wear, a bit like a crash helmet or today’s military helmet. And it was of such significance that only an axe or a hammer would really be able to penetrate it.

It’s no surprise, then that we would be given protection for our heads and, therefore, protection for our minds. So, to put on the helmet of salvation, which is the exhortation here, is then to trust in all that Christ has accomplished. That’s why it is called here “the helmet of salvation.” Because our protection from the enemy of our souls and all of his evil schemes is once again grounded not in how I feel but in what I know.

This is why it’s vitally important that we understand how we obtain salvation. How is it that we’re saved? How are we redeemed? At the end of the day; when all of the chips are on the table, and all of the theological dust from all of the academic debates has settled, what’s required for us to have our sins forgiven and our names written in the Lamb’s book of life? Again, and again, and again… Over and over and over, the Bible says that it’s believing, it’s faith, it’s accepting in your head and heart that what the Bible says about you is true, and what it says about Jesus is true.

Romans 3:11-12 paints a pretty dark and unflattering picture of us when it reads, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” So much for “I try to live a good life and be kind and loving to other people…” But thanks be to God the story doesn’t end there. Romans 3:21-25 says, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.”

Verse 22 doesn’t say “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who attend church.” It doesn’t say, “for all who are baptized.” It doesn’t say, “for all who are doing their best.” It doesn’t say, “for all who love religion.” It says, “for all who believe!” You remember the Philippians jailer in Acts 16 says to Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And what was their response? (“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”) Salvation from sin is for all who believe. Are you wearing the helmet of salvation? Are you cultivating and nourishing and strengthening your belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ?

The Sword of the Spirit

As I mentioned earlier, some commentators don’t see this as being part of the defensive armor as much as the offensive weapon for the child of God. And while that might have some merit, the sword can indeed be used for defense, so we’re going to treat it as such. But understand that the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God is also offensive – it’s the way we proclaim the Good News.

Now, the sword that Paul has in mind here isn’t the large two-handed sword that we commonly associate with Braveheart. No, that kind of sword is mentioned in the Bible. It’s the Greek word rhomphaia, and it’s used six times in Revelation and one time (metaphorically) in Luke 2 where Mary is told that a sword will pierce her heart too. But that’s not the sword that Paul had in mind.

No, the sword Paul likely has in mind is the short-handled sword (perhaps 12-18 inches long) used in offensive, close-quarter combat. It’s the Greek word machaira. It’s the sword that Peter used to cut off Malchus’ ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. Remember that? Hebrews 4:12 immediately comes to mind here, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

I’m reminded of the introduction to the Gideon Bible that’s distributed by The Gideon’s International. If you’ve ever opened your hotel nightstand, then you’ve probably found one. I’m not exactly sure who composed this (probably a group), but it’s fabulous:

The Bible contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable.

Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, and practice it to be
holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you.

It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword and the Christian’s charter. Here too, Heaven is opened and the gates of Hell disclosed.

Christ is its grand subject, our good its design, and the glory of God its end. It should fill the memory, rule the heart and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently and prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory, and a river of pleasure.

It is given you in life, will be opened at the judgment, and be remembered forever. It involves the highest responsibility, rewards the greatest labor, and will condemn all who trifle with its sacred contents.

Folks, that’s a marvelous description of what you and I are holding in our hands at this very moment. And it’s what Paul says is at our disposal every second of every day in the spiritual battle that’s raging. The best illustration of this is Jesus’ own temptation in the wilderness. Who are we fighting according to Ephesians 6? (schemes of the devil, rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil). For every temptation, Jesus repelled Satan with the Scriptures.

We need to have the Word of God memorized. Maybe not all of it; indeed, I’m not sure that anyone can do that. But we need to have enough of it in our minds that we can pull out our phones or find a computer and type in a word or two and find what it is we’re looking for. If the sword is the equivalent of the modern-day gun, then many of us are defenseless against the enemy. We’ll either be killed and walk away from the faith, or we’ll be kidnapped and our faith will stagnate. Where are we this morning? Are we properly using the sword of the Spirit? Are we going to the gun range, as it were? Are we studying our Bibles? Are we treasuring Scripture in our hearts?

These are peculiar days, daunting days, exciting days, and we stand on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before. I found myself going back again to my files and was delighted to see that I had a quote from a song from 1929. It was written by a man. You know one of his songs, if you’ve been around for any time at all. This man wrote the little chorus, “Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul. Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.” His name was Seth Sykes. He was a very ordinary little man. His wife’s name was Bessie; and Seth and Bessie Sykes were evangelists in Scotland in the first half of the twentieth century. And when going back into my files under “The Bible,” I found one of his classic little songs. It goes like this:

Many folks are sad and weary, and they often fret and pine,
For they read what many critics have to say
About the dear old Bible, blessed holy book divine,
But for me, I’ve proved its worth, and I can say,

I’m acquainted with the Author, and I know God’s Word is true;
In times of grief it brings relief and tells me what to do.
Now I dearly love its pages, for I’ve found the Rock of Ages;
I’m acquainted with the Author, and I know it’s true.

That’s not arrogance. That’s faith. That’s belief.

Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank You that You equip us as soldiers in Your army. Thank You that the lessons that we’re given are to be heard and acted on as a company, that we’re not solo in this endeavor, that we’re not on our own. We’re not supposed to be on our own; we’re better together. And whether it is in holding up the shield of faith or helping one another get on the shoes of the readiness of the gospel of peace, or whether reminding one another, “Don’t leave your sword, now, make sure you have it by your side,” Lord, help us with these things, we pray.

Give us a heart of compassion when we have to say things that run counter to the thought forms of our culture. Give us wisdom and grace in a boldness that is at the same time winsome. Remind us that our words are to be full of grace and seasoned with salt. Give to us something of the kindness and compassion of the Lord Jesus, Himself, who was particularly willing to make space and time and extend the story of His mercy to those who were most in need. We thank you that you have made us part of the company that runs from age to age until finally we’re gathered into Your presence. We bless Your name, Lord Jesus. Amen.

The Armor of God (Part 1) – Ephesians 6:14-18a

Ephesians 6:14-18a

Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Ephesians 6. We’re getting ever so close to concluding our study of Paul’s letter to the believers in the church at Ephesus. I know that it’s been a long road, but I trust that it’s been a good journey. You know, I’ve had several people say to me over the years – as we walk little by little through various books of the Bible (both Old/New Testaments) – that they never really appreciated all that was to be found in whatever book of the Bible it was until we went chapter by chapter and sometimes verse by verse through it. And if that kind of describes you, then let me just encourage you with these words: Me Too.

Listen, let me tell you something. Like a movie producer or editor, there’s so much more that I leave on the desk or the office floor because I just can’t fit it into a sermon. Those of you that have ever taught a class (of any kind), but particularly on the Bible, you know this is true. And while I wanted to preach an entire sermon on each piece of armor, I just felt like we needed to keep moving.

In fact, if you think that my treatment of these verses is a bit slim, then let me recommend a two-volume set of books by the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Dr. Lloyd-Jones was a Protestant minister and also a medical doctor. He served for nearly 30 years as the minister of Westminster Chapel (not to be confused with Westminster Abbey) in central London. Dr. Lloyd-Jones wrote a 375-page exposition of Ephesians 6 in 1976, and a year later he finished its companion 365-page exposition to supplement the parts that he left out in his first book.

So, you have somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 pages of homework, which is your assigned text. Some of you just had a momentary flashback, a temporary triggering of PTSD, remembering those dreaded days in school classrooms. In any event, I’m sure that you will find whatever else might be missing from the gaps in today’s sermon in The Christian Warfare: An Exposition of Ephesians 6. Speaking of Ephesians 6, have you found your spot? Follow along with me in your Bibles or on the screens.

14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.

We come, gracious God, entirely dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the truth of your Word, to grant us grace in order that we might believe and rest in it. So, accomplish your purposes, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This morning, we’re going to consider the first three pieces of armor that Paul lists: the belt, the breastplate, and the shoes. Next week we’ll consider the shield, the helmet, and the sword.

As I mentioned last week, we’re called to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” So, let’s be sure that we start with the proper perspective. Paul doesn’t see this as a call to me-centered spiritual warfare: “Be you. You’re powerful when you’re you. Here’s a key: Nobody can beat you at being you. Be you, because when you’re you, you activate your anointing.” No, Paul sees this through the lens of the gospel. Be strong – yes! But be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Stand firm – yes! But do so wearing God’s armor, not your own.

Why am I refocusing our attention on Jesus and the gospel? Because, again, the temptation of this world is to do things in our own strength, to take our eyes off of Christ, or to even outright forget God. Think about it. If we were completely honest, how many of us got out of bed every day this week and before we left the house for work or play or appointments or whatever – how many of us began with prayer? The truth of the matter is that most of us (pastor included) can get sucked into the ordinary and mundane nature of life to such a degree that we unconsciously say to ourselves and the watching world, “I’ve got this. I can do this. This is no problem.” And while I want to acknowledge a healthy view of self-esteem, I also want us to recognize that on most days we wake up and begin to engage in a spiritual, moral, and ideological battle in our own strength, and in our own armor, rather than in the Lord’s strength and in God’s armor.

While these verses are written to us, and they involve us, and they concern us, and there’s a personal application of these verses in our everyday, mundane, ordinary lives – the focus of these verses is NOT on you and me – it’s ultimately on Jesus and our victory in the battle because of His sacrifice upon the cross of Calvary. He’s the One that ensures victory. He’s our Savior. He’s our Redeemer. He’s our Defender and Protector. The glory belongs to Him. It’s all about Jesus.

The Belt of Truth

Now, we’ve spoken in the past a little bit about lists in the Bible and how to understand lists, what conclusions you can and can’t draw concerning lists, and that sort of thing. Well, these pieces of armor, in some sense make up a list. And while I want to be careful not to establish an incorrect emphasis of certain parts of the armor of God to the detriment of other parts; nevertheless, I find it absolutely fascinating that Paul began with the soldier’s belt. And I’m, perhaps, even more surprised that he equates it with truth.

Again, think about it with me. If I gave you a picture of a modern-day soldier, and told you to use that as your inspiration for describing the armor of God where would you start? I’d be willing to bet that almost every single person would begin with the soldier’s weapon, right? We’d start with the gun, right? Paul’s version of the gun was the sword, and it’s the last thing he mentions. He starts with something that most of us wouldn’t even include in our list: the belt.

The BDU (battle dress uniform), more commonly known to us as cammo or fatigues, consists of a pair of pants, a t-shirt, and a button-own shirt. So, there’s still a need for a belt. And it still serves the same basic function as the one in Paul’s day. To be fair, Paul’s Roman centurion didn’t have a separate pair of pants (his was a single robe, or something akin to a kilt), but he used the belt to hold the extra material up when he ran or engaged in combat. So, you took the long robe/kilt-like part and you hiked it up and tucked it into the belt. That way your legs were free to move. You were less likely to trip or be hampered when moving about. And while most of us wouldn’t have included it on our list of armor, trust me; the last thing a soldier wants is his/her pants falling down in the middle of battle. So, Paul begins, and perhaps we should too, with the belt.

Paul equates it with the “truth.” And we’re left with this question: is Paul referring to “objective truth” or “subjective truth?” Objective truth would be a statement such as the one Jesus makes in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Is that what Paul means, or is he speaking more subjectively like when we talk about speaking truthfully as opposed to being liars? The commentaries are almost split 50/50. And the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced in my own heart and mind that it doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition. It’s both.

We begin by appreciating, as Paul said in chapter 1:13, “In Him [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” Truth is founded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Truth is founded in God, and Jesus was God in the flesh. The truth of our salvation is found in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.

At the same time, however; when we accept the truth of Jesus and the gospel, the Bible is clear that we become a near creation and there are new realities and responsibilities. So, when I say to myself and others that I’m a Christian, I’m a Christ-follower, I’m a believer in Jesus, what I’m also saying is that speaking truthfully is my new mandate. Again, Paul says in this same letter, in Ephesians 4:15, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ.” So, the truth that is represented in the belt is both objective truth (Jesus is God and thus the only way of salvation) and it’s subjective truth (as His child, I should desire to speak truthfully).

And that leads me to one last comment before we move on. What’s one of the primary things that we complain about today? Not knowing who or what to trust, right? Whether it’s politics, or healthcare, or sexuality, or education, or even religion, trust and truth are absolutely essential. We’re living in a world where truth is whatever people want it to be. Yet Paul, over 2,000 years ago, writes about the armor of God and starts with the belt of truth.

As followers of the Truth, we have an opportunity to step into the moral void and shine the light of Jesus and an understanding of God and truth that corresponds with reality – not a faked version to further someone’s partisan agenda or nefarious fantasy, but a real and true version that points to salvation and redemption from sin in Jesus alone.

The Breastplate of Righteousness

This was the hardened leather plate, perhaps even metal, that was worn over the upper body of the Roman soldier. If you’ve ever watched the movie Gladiator (featuring Russell Crowe), this is the black breastplate that had the image of two horses on it (Argento and Scatto). It would be the equivalent of our modern body armor or tactical vest with Kevlar or ballistic plating. Obviously, it covers the most vital organs: the lungs, the heart, the liver, and the spleen.

Like the belt of truth, this, too, can be spoken of in objective terms and subjective terms. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:30, Paul writes, “And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” In other words, it’s because of our union with Jesus that we even have a right standing before God. It’s objective. It’s concrete. It’s positional.

However, although I’ve been made right before God on account of my faith in Jesus and therefore I’m positionally righteous, that still means that as a child of God I’m supposed to seek to live righteously. In other words, just because my standing before God is as a righteous person, that doesn’t give me the right to live any old way I want. Because I’ve been made righteous by Jesus, I ought to likewise seek to live a holy and pure life and make decisions that reflect my position before God. James 1:19-20 puts it like this, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” See how that works?

See, the person who falsely declares themselves to be a Christian and who believes they have a right standing before God (when in fact they don’t trust Jesus), but who continuously lives outside of God’s will and, in some cases, obstinately refuses to change his/her lifestyle is vulnerable to every attack and is susceptible to every temptation.

If the vital organs are exposed, all it takes is one shot and you can be mortally wounded. While you don’t want to hurt your legs or arms or waist (or any part of your body for that matter), there is a sense in which those are not as important. That’s why we call these organs “vital.” It’s vital that we have the righteousness of Christ covering our hearts. When Satan accuses us of being unworthy, stand firm with the breastplate of righteousness that you received the moment you trusted Christ for your salvation.

The Shoes of the Gospel of Peace

I need to be careful talking about this, but I can hardly walk into my closet (or my bedroom, for that matter) because of all of the shoes. Ladies, what’s up with all the shoes? I single out ladies, but it’s not just women. Have you noticed the variety of footwear that’s available today? There’s a shoe for almost every conceivable outing.

There are shoes for basketball and running and tennis and golf and wrestling and auto racing and football. There are shoes for working in the yard and boots for riding horses and boots for working on the factory floor. There are shoes for church and shoes for the office environment and shoes for going out on the town. Name a scenario, any scenario, and there’s a shoe somewhere that was made specifically for that occasion. Then there are the shoes made specifically for an outfit, right ladies. Sandals for this dress and heels for that dress. Flats for this outfit and pumps for that one. Wedges over here and stilettos over there. It’s crazy, but the point is this: you need the right shoes for the job at hand.

Like the belt of truth, we don’t normally associate shoes with military armor. Nevertheless, it’s true. They’re just as significant as the other parts. Let’s go back to our soldier. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century said that part of the military prowess of Caesar’s army had to do with their shoes. Because they had superior footwear, they were able to march longer distances than their enemies. And because their enemies had inferior shoes they weren’t able to go as far.

What shoes are we wearing – shoes of readiness to share the gospel of peace. You know, we’re told in Scripture “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (Isaiah 52:7). Ephesians 2:17 says, “And [Jesus] came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Shoes of peace represent the fact that we are no longer at war with God. Because of Christ’s atoning work upon the cross, we’ve been reconciled to Him.

How are we doing in sharing the gospel? I don’t say this to make us feel guilty. I say it to myself. In all of our encounters and all of our opportunities, have we taken the time to speak a word for the gospel, to speak a word for Christ? Are we ready to share the Good News of the gospel? That’s our commission. Those were, in fact, the last words of Jesus to His disciples. We normally think of the Great Commission as offered in Matthew’s gospel, but listen to Mark’s gospel, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16a).

As we fight spiritual battles, as we take our stand for moral and righteous living in evil days, we must remember that our goal isn’t to return vengeance or hatred to the very people that need to be redeemed, that need to be saved, but rather to proclaim peace with God through Jesus Christ.

Father, thank you for your Word. Thank you for the awareness that the task is never finished. Thank you that in every generation you raise up those who will take a stand, those who will take up the full armor, those who won’t tie themselves up in knots but will have an adaptability so as to seize the opportunities that are presented.

God, give us those eyes, give us that care, and grant that as we think about the future of our church, our community, and our world, that we might take seriously the exhortations of Scripture here. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.