Grasping God’s Purpose: “The Life Line” – Exodus 20:1-11

Out of the black night came the sound of a low muffle, as the helicopter swept across the open rice patty swooping low on top of the crouched soldiers.  The men were well behind enemy lines, and there was no opportunity to land to retrieve the team. The helicopter let down a gaggle of rope lines, and simply swept across the patty – allowing the soldiers to quickly stand and grab the rope as it passed by. It was a dangerous operation, but it was a practiced one for this special team. They knew the drill. When the rope hit the top of the rice stalks, they positioned themselves to grab hold. Whether in quiet or under enemy fire, they dare not let go once they grabbed hold. This was their lifeline to escape. They would come on board the copter later… for now they hung onto the lifeline.

In a way, because you and I were born into an ongoing war between God and the enemy, we need a lifeline stuck down here in the midst of cross fire – but God knew that. When God uncovered His law to Moses and then the Israelites, He did so through ten initial standards that set the whole program in motion. They were much more than simply God’s “top ten” – they were a life line to those who traveled through a harsh desert and into the land of promise. They were meant to accomplish three specific objectives – to connect the people to God; to connect appropriately people to each other; to set standards for governing our hearts within. We call them simply: “The Ten Commandments”.

The first four of these commands is fixed on our view of God Himself – a lifeline of vertical commands that helped every Israelite understand the IDENTITY and SANCTITY of the God they served. Knowing HIM and recognizing HIS PLACE was foundation for all other law. When a believer recognizes God as He is, he can relate to others and his inner life properly. How I treat others and how I deal with temptation issues are built ultimately on how I understand the person and character of God.

Key Principle: When we recognize God as He is, we will relate to others and my inner life as I should.

When God is understood, sin is defined. When God is NEAR, sin is PLAIN. When God is REVERED, sin is REVILED. As one man observed: “No man chooses evil because it is evil – he only mistakes it for happiness.” (Wollstonecraft).

 Before we move forward in the opening of the law, we should “explore the forest” surrounding it. We need to understand a few things about the whole picture of LEGAL CODE in the Torah (five books of Moses). It is essential that we recognize there are three essential codes of Hebrew Law – Civil Code (or rules for the camping trip through the desert for the forty years in the wilderness found in Exodus and Numbers); Criminal Code (or standards of atonement and restoration in light of constant violations before a Holy God found in Leviticus); Constitutional Code (laws to establish the Jewish people as a legal entity before God and then govern their behaviors under His regulation found in Deuteronomy). Within the codes of law (the structure from which our own American jurisprudence system is indirectly derived) we find both BLACK LETTER LAW (“basic standard elements for a particular field of law, which are generally known and free from doubt or dispute”) and CASE STUDIES (an intensive analogy that gives rise to a particular law or shows its specific application).

Within two of these codes of law (Civil and Constitutional) there are a CORE SET OF PRINCIPLES that set the tone for all of the governed behaviors, called the “Ten Commandments”. These were offered at two distinct times in Israel’s history – at Sinai when God was establishing the basis for the CIVIL CODE, and thirty-eight years later at the establishment of the CONSTITUTIONAL CODE (near Mt. Nebo) as Israel was about to enter, conquer, divide and settle the land of Canaan promised to Abraham long before.

Within the Ten Commandments, there were three kinds of CORE COMMANDS:

When we dig deeper into the specifics of the core commands, or “Ten Commandments”, we can easily identify three different objectives those commands were aimed at. These objectives emerge as what we will call a “type” of command. The three “types” of core commands shape in us three core value statements that determine how we make sense out of life and make our personal choices in life. The three are vertical commands, horizontal commands and contentment laws.

Vertical Commands (laws that govern how we are to relate to God above us).

First, commandments I-IV lay out how we must understand Who God is and how He fits in our lives. Those truths are the basis of all that we do. Letting God hold the central place in our lives keeps things from turning into gods. No one sets out with the intention of worshiping these things – but in our fallen condition they slowly, and almost imperceptibly they grow inside us and enthrone themselves. Someone may object and say, “Wait a minute, what if the person doesn’t believe in God? What if they are an atheist or an agnostic? How can you say how we understand God is at the foundation?” Well, think about it. An atheist believes there is no God – so they make all decisions about right and wrong – moral and immoral – on the basis of their own view of good and evil. They essentially serve themselves when it comes to morality. What makes sense to them becomes their standard. For an agnostic, though they claim they may believe in God, but cannot know if He is there – the net effect is the same. He serves a god of his own mind – and that satisfies him.

Horizontal Commands (laws to govern how we are to relate to other people beside us).

A second core value statement that determines our behaviors and choices can be found in our understanding of OTHER PEOPLE – and how we desire to live with them. Some scholars posit that commands V-VII are primarily about RELATIONSHIPS with other people in our community, and therefore are horizontal commands. The value statements found in these laws presuppose that because God placed us in the position of life and under the authorities of life we were born into, we should follow His commands about how best to respond. To reject our parentage is to reject His rule. To reject the sanctity of human life is to reject the sacredness of His breath in man. To violate the intimacy of another’s marriage is to diminish the promises and vows people make and use the sexual gift outside its especially purposed parameters. These are all horizontal commands – in that they press us to watch how we relate to others surrounding us, and we will study them in coming lessons.

Contentment Laws (laws to govern how we look at life from within us).

A third set of core value statements relates to how we govern our inner beings and control inner desires – commandments VIII-X. Each of these peek through our lives and demonstrate the underlying perspective  – particularly on how we view things that aren’t ours. When we say, “This is my stuff; I own it and it belongs to me.” We show that we don’t grasp the stewardship position God has placed us into. How we understand responsibility and delayed gratification. How we govern our heart and mind within – and how we govern our actions without. Contentment Laws include theft (Don’t use your HANDS to gain advantages I didn’t give you), integrity (Don’t use your TONGUE to gain unfair advantage) and coveting (Don’t focus on things that belong to someone else). These reveal how we govern ourselves as we walk through this life.

Before we plunge in, it is also worth noting that the Ten Commandments were repeated as they entered Canaan. God drove home the point that the covenant core civil codes were CONTINUED as they entered the land of Promise. Some were further amended and articles would be made to form the nation, but the core code of conduct would not be altered. – because it defined basic principles of civility from God’s perspective (which is ultimately the one that counts!).

Look at the first four commandments – they are all about our view of and personal relationship with God. This is wholly appropriate, because we are to love God first. . . Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart. . .” (Mark 12 is a repeat of Deuteronomy 6). These are the first commandments and the most important according to the Savior. Grasping these “VERTICAL COMMANDS” is essential to provide the foundation of our obedience.

Exodus 20:1 Then 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 an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to 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 leave him unpunished 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 of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11 “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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.

The first standard is found in Exodus 20:2-3. It is wrapped in the words: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” One first pass, it may look as though God is fine with being FIRST IN LINE of a series of Gods – but that is too simplistic a reading. It is actually a statement regarding exclusivity.

Standard 1: Exclusivity: I have the absolute right to your undivided loyalty.

The opening standard is all about God’s right to my life, my priorities, my choices and my thoughts. Exodus 20:1 “Then 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.  These verses have essentially three specific point of obedience:

First, I must see the Lord God of Heaven as the One that has the right to govern my life (20:2,3). This is not a simple statement, because rebellion runs very deep within fallen men and women. We YEARN to be our own supreme. In this statement: “I Am the Lord your God!” the Lord employs the Divine name: Yahweh – “the One and only self-Existent and ever present One”. We saw this in Revelation 1:4 in a previous lesson.  The description of God the Father is familiarly described in as “the ever present One” – “He who was, is and is to come” seems to emphasize the same truth as found in Genesis 21:33 “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.” The ever-in-the-present God of Abraham keeps His promises. Because God exists outside of linear time – He is never caught making promises that “become too hard” to keep. His Word is secure. The first commandment is predicated on me understanding that God always IS – and in that way is He is above all, and fully knowledgeable of all. He is always there, and always knows – everything.

Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Christian organization “Navigators”, used to go to bed at 10:00. He did that because he got up early each morning to pray. When he was with someone, and 10:00 rolled around, he’d pass out magazines, and say “Folks, I’m going to bed. You can stay here as long as you want. I’ve got an appointment with God tomorrow morning and, frankly, my appointment with God is the most important thing in my life.

Second, I am commanded to recall the rescue He has performed for me as I consider the basis for His right as my Supreme. Because I DO forget, and God doesn’t – He reminds the believer (in principle) to look back at the work that He has done to draw them out of slavery and bondage from a past that was hopeless and lost. He owns me by Creation – but again by redemptive purchase!

Third, I am commanded to deliberately place Him first – at the supreme position in my choices as I walk through life. The construction of “Have no other gods before Me” can just as properly be translated BESIDE ME – and sometimes is. That is the portent of this truth – I will not compete for your attention in choices, morality, love, affection, etc. TRUE or FALSE: Most people have God in first place in their life. I think we know the answer without a sermon or a preacher. Most people serve themselves. Can you name some of the things that people put in God’s place today? How about money? Perhaps sports? How many would think it was pleasure? For some, it appears to be sex – they give inordinate attention to this function of their body. For still others it is their self affirmation found in their career. Still others find it in a girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse or child. Things we get fixated on are the center point of our worship – and God wants to be there.

In the early 1990’s, several university professors passed out copies of the 10 Commandments to students and asked them to arrange the commandments in order of importance. Over 90% of the students rearranged the commandments and placed the commandments dealing with man’s relationship with his fellow man above the commandments dealing with man’s relationship with his God. But the truth is this: Putting God first has to be the top priority if we’re going to live lives that are in harmony with the way he has put this world together. If you don’t have God first, it’s difficult not to want to steal something, or kill someone who’s done you wrong, or misuse God’s gift of sex. (sermon central illustrations).

Standard 2: Identity: Do not try to shape Me in to your understanding or box Me in to your molds (Ex. 20:4).

In time, you will start by representing Me with some image –  and end up substituting Me with something that you CONTROLLED AND PUT TOGETHER (20:5a). I am uniquely first in all of what is – and it cheapens Me to liken Me to a mere Creation I have made. You will be tempted to trade Me for some other person or object in your life. It will fail and bring troubles in your life and the family you have for generations (5b). Yet, if you follow Me, you offer a kindness for yourself and for many others (6)!

Dt. 5:8 ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 9 ‘You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 10 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

This is perhaps the most common sin on the planet. It is far more pervasive than sexual perversion or theft – and it dwells in some insidious form is MOST of us – the RE-SHAPING OF GOD into a controllable and palatable size and shape. This is the sin that shows through when someone says: “My god would never send anyone to hell! He is loving and kind.” Those truths of God can be warped into thinking that He is not just and holy as well. They are as sure a re-shaping of God as the fashioning of a golden calf form at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Standard 3: Regard My name as high and important! Do not use it without importance, nor swear by it falsely (7). I am listening!

God’s next standard has to do with not using His holy identity in a casual way – without its dues importance or by swearing by His name falsely (Ex. 20:7). God reminds: “I am listening!”

Dt. 5:11 ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. 

The word “vain” (Hebrew: “shawv”) is from a form of the word to desolate or leave destroyed; often translated “false” or “empty” –  and is now translated “meaningless or worthless.” So to take someone’s name in vain is to empty their name of meaning or worth. It may be related to Jesus’ statement specifically in Matthew 12:36 “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” It is SURELY related in principle.

When we focus on the word “vain” then, it recalls something we hold as “meaningless or worthless”. Recently I asked a young person why they wrote OMG so often – it stands for OH MY GOD. They answered: “It is just an expression. It doesn’t really mean anything!” I pointed out then –as we should now – that is the VERY DEFINITION OF WHAT GOD SAID WE SHOULD NOT DO!  Don’t use His name in common speech as another form of expression – He is GREATER than that! God said this because His name is DISTINCT (holy). “Let them praise Your great and awesome name- it is holy.” (Psalm 99:3). God’s IDENTITY IS SUPREME, so His name is holy – the word holy means unique, distinct and in this case ABOVE.

In 1977, George Burns and John Denver starred in the movie “Oh God!” The film depicted God as appearing to an assistant manager of a grocery store as a fun loving old man, and “God” selected the employee as his modern messenger to the world. Carl Reiner thought the title was funny. The fact is that it is now an empty expression of daily speech – devoid of any real meaning.

Standard 4: Ownership as Foundation: My boundaries are the ones that matter – since everything was created by Me for My purpose.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 opens with a  story of seven days – not actually a “Creation” account. It is formed around God making everything, and purposing everything. The Biblical logic is this: “Since I made everything and gave everything its original design and purpose – remember it is all for whatever I have said it is for.” That expose on created things ends on a boundary God set for work – simply called the Sabbath. It is as though God said “Take time to stop, reflect and evaluate on your life and accomplishments with regularity. Stop when I say stop. Present yourself to Me and offer yourself anew. Do not neglect this (8-11).”

Dt. 5:12 ‘Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.

The Sabbath (Hebrew: shabbat) is literally translated “rest” or “cessation of normal activities”. Originally mentioned in Genesis 2:1-3, the observance of the Sabbath day is first mentioned in the book of Exodus 16:23, when the children of Israel were in the desert.  It became a symbol of the Covenant relationship between the children of Israel and the God of Abraham given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Though part of the observance of the Sabbath a day was rest and refreshment before God, it also a day of holy assembly or worship unto Him (Leviticus 23:3). In addition, it served as a constant reminder of God’s continued covenant with Israel (Ezekiel 20:12), and was later applied as a reminder to them that God had delivered them from Egyptian slavery.  The Israelites were expected to keep it with such seriousness that Sabbath breakers were to be stoned to death.  No fire was kindled and no sticks were gathered (labor associated with other days of the week).   The prophets considered proper observance of the Sabbath day as a litmus test of obedience to God. They argued that it directly affected the success and standing of the people of Israel and Jerusalem, or their downfall and decay of the city of Jerusalem.  In that way they considered the Sabbath observance as a thermometer for the spiritual condition of the Israelites (Jeremiah 17: 19-27; Nehemiah 13: 15-22, Isaiah 58:13, Ezekiel 20:12,24, 22:8).

The term Sabbath was not only used for the 7th day of the week and also for special observance days, feasts and periodic observance years. The day of Atonement was referred to as a Sabbath (Leviticus 23:32), Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:7,8), and the seventh year in the growing cycle (Sabbatical year). These were prescribed for the Hebrews and included foreigners who dwelt among the Israelites, called those who “drew near to cleave to the God of Israel”. The Sabbath year of rest for the land was observed after six years, Leviticus 25:4, “But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.”

In the limited time we have today, let’s recall that although the Sabbath was a unique command to Israel “for all their generations” and was not a command given to those who came to Jesus who are not Jewish. Paul offered two totally different standards of obedience for the Jew and Gentile believer. I realize that many would disagree with me, but I cannot reconcile all the texts of Scripture consistently any other way.

  • The mere fact that certain letters were addressed specifically to Jews in the Christian Scriptures (James 1:1; Hebrews 1) demonstrated that the early church understood the lifestyle issues and practices of the Jewish and Gentile believers were not identical.
  • In short, I believe a pivotal teaching of the Spirit is found in 1 Cor. 7:18-20. God says through Paul’s pen to be what God called me to be. If I was of the circumcision, remain so (implying a Jew can remain keeping the standard of the Torah). If I am called of God from uncircumcision, REMAIN so. I am not to seek after a change in what God made me, but to rest in Him for salvation, and walk in Him according to which calling I came to Him in. Gentiles come to Israel and often start trying to “act like Jews”, which neither reaches their loved ones back home, nor impresses Jewish people. It becomes a novelty, but draws no one to Messiah. In the end, most give it up after the newness wears off. We need to celebrate the person God created us to be, Jew or Gentile, and walk according to the identity He gave us!

The principle of Sabbath, however, applies to all believers. Sometimes MORE is LESS. We need to be careful to regularly, purposefully, deliberately STOP – reflect – and worship.

All he ever really wanted in life was more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion-dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he broke into the Hollywood scene and soon became a filmmaker and star. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid handsome sums to indulge his every sexual urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed, built, and piloted the fastest aircraft in the world. He wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favors so skillfully that two U. S. presidents became his pawns. All he ever wanted was more. He was absolutely convinced that more would bring him true satisfaction. Unfortunately, history shows otherwise. [He] concluded his life … emaciated; colorless; sunken chest; fingernails in grotesque, inches-long corkscrews; rotting, black teeth; tumors, innumerable needle marks from drug addiction. Howard Hughes died,… believing the myth of more. He died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standards [Bill Hybels, “Power: Preaching for Total Commitment,” Mastering Contemporary Preaching (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1989), 120-121].

Why did God demand Sabbath? Because it was a boundary that forced people to recall that THIS IS NOT THE ONLY WORLD THEY LIVE IN. They are not primarily PHYSICAL BEINGS. Men and women are PRIMARILY SPIRITUAL BEINGS with a few moments of PHYSICAL LIFE. God demands my focus to turn to the right place. He said: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” 1 John 2:15 (NIV). Remember, most of what you are engaged in on the earth is a part of the world that I will leave behind when I die. That isn’t true about my walk with God – nor my understanding of Him. When I recognize God as He is, I will relate to others and my inner life as I should. How I treat others and how I deal with temptation issues are built ultimately on how I understand the person and character of God.