Friday, February 14, 2014

There Shall be No Other God : The Business of Christian Education LXXII

1And God spoke all these words, saying,
“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.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Exodus 20:1-4

Exodus 20 is the epicenter of the entire book of Exodus.  In this chapter we find that God gave Israel the Ten Commandments that even until today are still relevant and have become the governing standard of ethical conducts for billions of people.  Prior to this event, in chapter 19, God told Moses to prepare Israel.  God was going to come down to Mount Sinai in the cloud in order to give all these commandments.  The boundary was set and the people were not allowed to approach the mountain beyond the boundary.  The priests were told to consecrate themselves if they were to come and approach the mountain.  Yahweh, the one and only God of the universe wanted an audience with his chosen people.
If we look at Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan, we will find a very significant truth that
would help us understand the commandments of God, particularly the first two commandments.  Since Jacob brought his entire family into Egypt following Joseph’s invitation, Israel had lived in Egypt for 430 years.  In those years they got familiar with the way of the Egyptians.  And since in ancient times culture was very much interwoven with religion, Israel learned the way of the Egyptians.  Generations after generations, in those 430 years, Israel learned the gods of Egypt.  And Egyptians worshipped thousands of gods.  And so, Israel journeyed from the land of a thousand gods into the wilderness.
They journeyed out of Egypt for two reasons.  First, God heard their outcry and he saved them from slavery.  That is reflected in the preamble to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20.  And second, God remembered his promise to Abraham that after 400 years God would bring his descendents to the Promised Land, Canaan.  And if we read Numbers, we will find out that the book of Numbers mostly focuses on the battle preparation to enter the land of Canaan.  From Exodus 20 onward God prepared Israel to inherit the Promised Land.  Exodus 20 in particular becomes the marking point of the spiritual preparation for Israel upon entering the land.  Israel was about to enter a land with a thousand gods.  Similar to Egypt, Canaanites worshiped so many gods.  So, in the big picture, we can see that Israel came out of the land of a thousand gods, and they were going to enter into yet a land of a thousand gods.  And right at Mount Sinai, the one true God revealed himself and revealed the truth to Israel that there was only one God, Yahweh.
At Mount Sinai, Israel was right at the middle of the desert between Egypt and Canaan.  There on that mountain, they were face to face with the one true God.  God had demolished the gods and the pride of Egypt.  Israel was the witness to that event, the ten plagues and the dividing of the Red Sea.  And God was about to demolish Canaan as well, which later was to be found in the book of Joshua.  Prior to entering the Promised Land, it was important for Yahweh to educate Israel the true way of life, which should start from the worship of the true God.  And in that desert, Israel met no other gods.  There was only Yahweh.  This is one of the most important Christian education curriculums of all time.  And Israel was standing at the presence of God.  That was the sanctuary of the Lord.  This education began with Yahweh’s revelation.  He initiated this event for the benefit of his people.  It is like when we are teaching our children the way of life since they are very young.  The parents initiate the education for the benefits of the children.  In the same way, Yahweh was teaching Israel.  Israel came out of the land that did not know the true God, and they were entering the land which also did not know who the true God of heaven and earth was.  We educate our children from their ignorance of things in life especially of who God is, and as they grow up and ready to enter adult life, they are entering the kind of life that is dominated by ignorance of who God really is.
The first two commandments become the foundations for the entire Law.  And this was where Israel struggled throughout the rest of the Old Testament.  Prior to the commandments, God gave a preamble.  This preamble Israel ought to heed attentively.  God said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  God identified himself as the One who brought Israel out of Egypt.  And not only out of Egypt, but more importantly God interpreted Egypt as the house of slavery.  In that house of slavery, Israel was forced to serve the Egyptian gods.  This was to remind Israel that they cried out to the Lord to be rescued.  Slavery reduced their dignity into less than humans.  As their dignity hit the bottom, their souls cried out to their Maker, for slavery was injustice.  An injustice done to humanity and to their Maker.  And so God heard them, and took them out of the house of slavery, into a different house, the house of their Maker.
And now as they stood in the presence of their Maker, in his house, Yahweh proceeded by giving them the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”   Remember the big picture?  Israel came out of a land of a thousand gods and entering into yet a land of a thousand gods.  And they were now standing in front of the one and only true God of heaven and earth, Yahweh.  The first order was that Israel should not have other gods before Yahweh.  Israel was to get rid of any gods they worshiped or were thinking of worshiping.  This is the first principle of worship, which ought to govern our way of life, which is reflected in the way we worship God time and time again.  This provides the reason why we go to church to worship God every first day of the week.  For our life must start with the worship of the one true God.
The Second Commandment was then given: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  This second command was lengthy because of the reasoning following the command and the revelation of God’s character.  Theologians all over the world are still studying this command and the lengthy explanation that follows.  Without the reasoning, the command itself simply forbade Israel to make any image of anything and to worship them.  God’s command here covers the entire deities worshiped by the people.  Without going to the complexity of explanation here, God’s second command was understood perfectly according to the knowledge and language of the day, to mean all other gods imaginable to humans.
The key in the second command is not only on the making of the image, but more importantly on the worship of it.  Here God did not stop at “You shall not bow down to them” but he continued on stating “or serve them.”  This was to remind Israel of where they came from, from the house of slavery.  In that house they were forced to serve the false gods.  If when they were forced they rejected it, how much more when they were free, they were supposed to reject serving false gods even more.  In other words, God wanted Israel to bow down and serve him only, for that was the only proper way of life for all humankind.
All of this because “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.”  This sentence is hard to understand.  But let me make it simple and easy to understand.  The operating word here is more on the description of the people, that is the people who hate God.  It is attached here as a warning for Israel to separate themselves from the nations surrounding them.  Egypt and Canaan hated the Lord.  Egypt opposed the Lord and they challenged God.  Canaan did the same thing.  And so they hated Yahweh.  Israel were not to become like Egypt or Canaan.  They were supposed to love and embrace Yahweh, because he was the one who saved them from the house of slavery.
Now, the visiting of the sins of the fathers on the children to the 3rd and 4th generations might not ring well in our ears.  It sounds like God is being unjust.  I have to tell you that there is no way God is unjust.  For sure he is a just God.  He is the judge of the entire world after all.  Now, this matter relates closely to worship.  More importantly to whom the fathers worship.  Worship is educational in its nature.  A child is born, commonly, and especially in the culture of the day at that time, the child will follow the practice of worship of the parents.  Related to the second commandment, if the fathers worship and serve other gods and hate Yahweh, then it is almost certain that their children would also worship and serve other gods and hate Yahweh.  To break the tradition is extremely difficult, as all of us know.  Once established, a tradition is not easily broken.  It will take a huge battle between generations in order to alter a tradition.  In that case, it is very important to be very cautious on how we do worship.  Especially, the weight of our passage today rests on the proper object of worship.  For Israel was supposed to worship the true God only in the right manner.  All the rules and regulations that followed after this passage regulated the proper protocols of worshipping Yahweh.  In order to illustrate, let me say briefly that one may not worship Yahweh with the way one worship Baal.  If one is to worship Yahweh, then Yahweh’s protocol ought to be followed.
These two commandments are not less important in our era today.  They are indeed still carrying the same weight as they were given to Israel four thousand years ago.  Especially for Christians today, these commandments carried with them deeper spiritual meaning.  Ever since Jesus Christ died on the cross for our forgiveness, the meaning of “the house of slavery” has expanded beyond physical and mental slavery.  Physical slavery is bad, mental slavery is worse, but spiritual slavery is the worst.  Israel was enslaved physically, mentally, and spiritually when they were in Egypt.  In our modern world today, the allusion to slavery only focuses on physical and mental slavery.  But the spiritual slavery is not given much thought.  Israel was forced to serve the gods of the Egyptians.  The meaning of that kind of slavery has been expanded through Jesus’ teaching and redemptive work.  And so, based on the Bible, we now know that throughout history, people have voluntarily given themselves to be enslaved by sin.  Deep down in our hearts, the image of God within, we cry out to be freed from the bondage of sin.  Once the slavery of sin takes place, no strength and wisdom of man can overcome it.  Our souls are waiting for The Savior to come and obliterate the power of sin.  And it is only accomplished in Jesus Christ.
Many attempts have been tried in order to ease the agony of human souls in search of true freedom.  Through good works, through saintly conducts, through offerings and sacrifices, through the worship of who knows what, through abiding by the rules of religion, and so on and so forth.  But none works.  Many people falsely believe that those attempts work, but in deeper analysis, they all admit that something is missing.  But since there is no other alternative that might please their pride, they settle with whatever they choose and deceive themselves in the illusion of fake freedom.  With all the illusions and deceptions roaming the face of the earth, children of man have been unconsciously enslaved in their spirits.  This is the highest kind of deception.  People do not think or feel that they are enslaved, but yet they are slaves of sin.  This truth is explained further in Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, particularly in Romans 6 & 7.
The realization toward liberation from spiritual slavery begins with the truth that Yahweh is the only true God.  The gods in the west side of the Red Sea made children of Adam slaves.  In the same way, the gods in the east side of the Jordan also desired to enslave the children of man.  Only Yahweh stood in the middle, giving the freedom from slavery to the children of man as it was meant to be.  The gods of our modern world today operate the same way as the gods of the ancient times.  They also want to enslave us.  If we are to choose the gods of this world, and bow down to them or serve them, then we will be slaves to them.  But the one true God offers true freedom through the commandments that there shall be no other gods before him and that we shall not carve any image in the form of anything and to worship or serve them.  The freedom given is for all of us to return to our dignity as children of God who are supposed to worship only the one true God of heaven and earth.  Only the true God cares about us.  The false gods do not care.  They only want to suck our life out of us until we are dry and dead.
But the true God, Yahweh, is the God who shows “steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  The main point of the commandments was to bring Israel to the reality of the love relationship between them and the true God.  God must have loved them very much that he went through all the trouble to fight Egypt in order to liberate them from slavery.  And naturally, it was only proper for Israel to love Yahweh who set them free from their agony.  To those who love him, Yahweh shows his infinite love.  Keeping Yahweh’s commandments is the only way to free them from being enslaved by other gods.  These two commandments are especially important for their liberty.  This is God’s grace to Israel.  And also to us.  As the deceitful attempts by the devil to enslave the children of man did not stop with the ancient Israel, but continues on until today, we too are provided grace by Yahweh through his eternal commandments in order to preserve and protect us from the enslavement by the gods of the world.
The practice of worship when it is done repeatedly will form a habit.  From habits, culture will then sprout.  Once culture is established, bloodshed would be required in order to change it.  If Israel continued to practice the Egyptian or the Canaanite’s worship habit, then soon they would be conformed into the Egyptian and Canaanite’s way of life.  This must not happen.  Yahweh took Israel out of their root in Egypt.  He freed them from slavery.  And before they entered Canaan, Yahweh took time with Israel in order to educate them the proper way of life.  Not only he sat down with Israel on Mount Sinai, but also God took time to educate the younger generation for forty years in the desert.  The desert education was key to the success of carrying out the true worship of Yahweh.  The older generation failed.  They disobeyed God.  It was extremely difficult for them to unlearn what they have learned from Egypt.  They treated Yahweh as they would treat Egyptian gods.  So God did not allow them to enter the Promised Land.  If they were to enter the Promised Land, they would quickly go back to their old way of life and abandon Yahweh altogether.  In order to establish a generation that would be faithful to God, Yahweh had to raise the younger generation in such a way that they went through a different habit.  For forty years the younger generation followed all the instructions as God revealed to Moses.  In that way they did not have a chance to learn and establish the culture of Egypt, and thus they were establishing the culture according to God’s instruction.  With the new culture established, the next generation after them would follow and learn from them.  And this all started from the worship of the One True God, Yahweh.
The intention of Yahweh is for Israel’s freedom.  And certainly for the freedom of the entire human race.  The slavery of the gods of the world has degraded the dignity of the bearers of the image of God.  Such degradation of human dignity is not in accordance with God’s purpose and will.  Only by getting rid of all the other gods, then humanity may regain its dignity.  This is a crucial step toward embracing the one true God.  Once we get rid of all the other gods, we may realize once more the nature and value of our being, and thus we then may understand our true self.  John Calvin observed this truth in his infamous “Institutes of the Christian Religion” when he discussed the first chapter, that is the chapter about the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self.  Calvin argued that only through knowing God we may know self, and through knowing self we also may know God.  Human is unique.  Through the channel of imagination, we connect our conduct to the conduct of the gods.  If we worship a god who is destructive in nature, our conduct will be formed in such a way to become destructive.  If we worship a god who is promiscuous in nature, then our conduct also would become promiscuous.  Somehow within our being, we have that connection to the spiritual being, be it real of imaginary.  That kind of connection we cannot deny.  Calvin called it as the seed of religion.  Cornelius Van Til called it as the sensus divinitatis, or the sense of divinity.  Thus if we connect to the wrong god, or more accurately, to the false god, then our life would go awry.  In that knowledge, God made the initiative to connect to humankind.  Without that connection being established, humans would be lost for eternity.  No longer will we know who we are.  Losing one self would be devastating to one’s soul.  The more we are away from God, the more we lose our self.  The more we lose our self, the more we are away of God.  And the vicious cycle continuous on until God breaks it.  The first two commandments that he gave breaks the cycle.  What follows after that is the liberation of spiritual slavery.  In obedient to God’s commands, our souls would be bound to his, and thus we return to the source.  In that way, and only in that way, may we be freed from the bondage of slavery by the false gods.  And God provides the most awesome way to unite us with himself, which is through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  All this starts with the conviction that there shall be no other god besides Yahweh.  Amen.

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