Face to Face

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Exodus 33:7-23

Children love “staring competitions” with their parents.  But the “competition” is a front.  We know what the child wants, we know what the parent wants.  Face to face.

Or think of the long-distance relationship.  Lovers who are sick of letters and phone-calls.  They want face to face.

Or the misunderstandings of work colleagues, accusations escalating, emails flying.  What do they need to resolve it all?  Face to face.

There is something incredibly powerful about being face to face.  When someone draws their face near, perhaps they want to kiss you, whisper something, tell you a secret.

It speaks of closeness, transparency, openness, friendship, love.  There is knowing and being known.  Face to face.

In Exodus chapter 33 we read about Moses going into the tent of meeting at the foot of Mount Sinai and speaking with the LORD:

“The LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.”  (Exodus 33:11)

This is incredible intimacy.  The LORD Almighty… face to face… as a man speaks to His friend.  Whatever “the image of God” means, this is its consummation: man and God in face-to-face fellowship.

Moses had this privilege intermittently and only for a matter of minutes.  Even so, these encounters had a remarkable effect on him.  His own face would radiate after “face to face” with the LORD.  When he went back to the people he would veil his face because they couldn’t bear to see that reflected glory fading away.  (Exodus 34:29-35)

But all of this sets us up for an encounter later on in the same chapter.  In Exodus 33, Moses is speaking to the LORD on top of the mountain and asks to see His glory (v18).  But in verse 20 He responds, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”  And again in verse 22 He says “my face shall not be seen.”

What is going on?  Is the LORD moody?  At sea level He’s friendly but at altitude, He becomes aloof?

No, the face-to-face LORD at the foot of Sinai is the Angel of the LORD who has been leading the people.  The unseen LORD on the mountain is God Most High.  To say it another way – the Son is the visible image of the invisible God.  And it’s God the Father with whom Moses converses on top of the mountain.

What is the topic of their conversation?  Well Moses asks the unseen LORD, “Who will go with the people?” (v12).  The Father replies:

My presence shall go with thee.  (Exodus 33:14)

“Presence” is literally the word for “face.”  The Father is saying “the Face-to-Face LORD will go with you.”  He is pledging the help of His Son, His Angel, His Presence – the LORD Jesus.  When Moses hears this news he is satisfied:

If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence. (v15)

Give me Jesus or give me death!  Moses wants the Father’s Face.  And He has it in the Father’s Son – the Face-to-face LORD.

Jesus reveals the unknown God.  And always has done.  In Paul’s words, He is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).

And at Christmas He revealed Himself, not just to Moses, but to the world.  Jesus is God’s Face turned towards us.

Now that He has come as Man, He offers us all an experience far superior to Moses’.  For Moses, face to face was a rare privilege.  But for those who look to Jesus now, we have a future promised whose very atmosphere is “face to face.”

The Apostle Paul writes that Christians will enjoy a “face to face” future that makes our experience now like “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Every kiss you’ve ever wanted, every affirmation you’ve ever craved, every relationship you’ve ever pursued, every longing you’ve ever felt – will be fulfilled when you’re face to face with Jesus.  And He, for His part, will say to His beloved, “It is so good to see you, let me get a good look at you.”  Face to face.

Stiffnecked

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Exodus 32:21-35

If a ploughman’s ox refuses to turn the way he wants, he calls the obstinate beast “stiffnecked.” Nine times in the Bible, that’s what the LORD calls His people.  The first occasion is in Exodus 32:

“I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.”  (Exodus 32:9-10)

God’s anger is provoked by the people worshipping their new golden god.  As far as He is concerned, this idolatry is a matter of stubbornness – a refusal to be led.  In wilful disobedience a stiffnecked people go their own way and they court total annihilation from the LORD.  In His wrath He threatens their destruction.

But Moses intercedes for Israel, and stunningly, the LORD Almighty listens.  Moses reminds the LORD of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”  (Exodus 32:14)

Apparently wrath can be averted for stiffnecked sinners.  This is good news.  And the rest of the chapter shows how.

First of all Moses calls the priests to execute a judgement on the people.  The Levites pick up swords and kill the guilty (v28).  Levites have always been blood-thirsty men.  As Jacob prophesied about their tribe, “their swords are weapons of violence” (Genesis 49:5). And this violent act is their “consecration” to priestly duty (v29).  You might even say it’s their ordination.

These Levites became priests that day.  What a fearful thing it would be for the Israelites to come to these men when they sinned.  But that’s the drill.  At the tabernacle, the sinner would have to confess their stiffnecked ways to these violent men bearing swords.  And as their priest plunged that sword into the animal substitute, they’d recognise that this blood-shed was precisely what they deserved.

But secondly, even after this blood-shed, Moses realises there’s still a work of atonement to be performed:

Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. (v30)

Here’s what Moses offers to the Father:

Blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. (v32)

Moses offers to die in the place of the people.  He doesn’t offer the blood of goats or bulls.  He doesn’t offer the blood of the guilty.  He offers his own blood – the blood of the innocent, the blood of the people’s ruler.

Would Moses himself be the promised Lamb to be provided on the mountain to make atonement?  Genesis 22:1-14 has been promising just this atonement for centuries – the Lamb on the mountain as a burnt offering.  Would Moses be the One to make atonement?

No.  God Most High declines Moses’ offer.  Instead He reminds him of His Angel – the true Leader of the people (v34).  The true Warrior and Commander at their head was indeed going before them.  They must continue to wait for Him and to trust in Him.

One day He would descend from the heavenlies, the Divine Angel and Saviour; the True Priest for the people, the Atoning Lamb and the Ruler of rulers; the true Innocent.  It’s Christ who would be handed over to death by Levites, killed by piercings and blotted out of the Father’s book.

In this way would the true atonement be made.  In this way, ‘One greater than Moses’ would make intercession for stiffnecked rebels, like us.

Golden calf

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Exodus 32:1-20

How long does it take a nation to fall away from its spiritual heritage?

Well in Exodus 32 it’s been 50 days since the Israelites had arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai.  They had been redeemed from slavery, brought through the Red Sea and carried by the Angel of God on eagle’s wings. He has brought them to hear the voice of God Most High speaking the ten words.  And they all responded:

“All the words which the LORD hath said will we do.” (Exodus 24:3)

Well, with such assurances of the people’s moral resolve, Moses stays up on the mountain receiving instructions for the tabernacle.  And while Moses is away, the Israelites play.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.  (Exodus 32:1)

How quickly they had forgotten the LORD Christ who had led them so faithfully.  And how soon they turned from God’s Presence to idols, breaking the very heart and foundation of the law.

Well, Aaron complies with the people’s wishes immediately. He compels the people to give towards this false god (verse 2).  This is in stark contrast to how money was raised for the tabernacle, where every donation was a free-will offering (e.g. Exodus 35:4-29).  But while true worship of the LORD is always free, false religion is always forced.

So, instead of being pressed into the LORD’s service, the goods they had taken from the Egyptians are made into a golden calf! (Exodus 3:22; 12:36)

Why a calf?  Psalm 106:19-20 clarifies that this is the calf of an ox.  Now when you put Ezekiel 1:10 and Ezekiel 10:14 together you see that cherubs are like oxen.  And we know that the devil is a cherub (Ezekiel 28:14-19).  Here’s the shock, Israel has not just descended into any old false worship.  This is devil worship!

That’s not to say they were consciously invoking Satan’s name.  In fact they liberally sprinkled their calf-worship with mentions of “the LORD”.  But this only shows that saying “Lord, Lord” doesn’t mean a whole lot.  You can worship Satan ‘in Jesus’ name.’

What would Moses do when he found out?  Moses, the righteous ruler dwelling in heavenly glory.  How will he respond to his sinful people?

As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it. And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?”

And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”  (Exodus 32:19-24)

Justifications for sin are always ridiculous and Aaron’s is no exception. Moses responds thunderously with righteous anger.  The law is hurled at a sinful people and tomorrow we’ll see the outcome.

But compare Moses with Christ.

Christ is the original Righteous Ruler of the people.  He too dwelt in heavenly glory and His people gave up waiting and turned to idols.  But when the time came, the Father did not send a thunder-bolt.  He sent His Son.  As a baby.  And Jesus, when He came in the flesh, did not hurl the law at us.  Though we deserve nothing but condemnation, He answers us with mercy.  He doesn’t force us to drink down judgement.  He offered us His own life-blood in salvation.

And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.  (John 1:17-18)

Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth

Exodus 21:20-27; Matthew 5:38-48

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” said Gandhi.

Not quite.  “Two eyes for an eye” might do it.  Or even “an eye for an eye for an eye”.  But “an eye for an eye” was an upper limit of retribution set down in law, explicitly forbidding the escalation of violence.

It comes within the first body of laws after the ten commandments (or “ten words” as they really are):

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exodus 21:24-25)

Here’s what’s being established: You have the right to compensation for the losses you have borne through another’s sin.

Elsewhere in the law’s application we see that eyes, burnings, woundings were not literally exacted as payments.  Instead the value of what was inflicted was to be paid as recompense.  So the very next verses in Exodus give a case study of how to respond to the wounding of an eye:

And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.  (Exodus 21:26-27)

The application of this law will not blind the world.  But neither will it save the world.  All it does is establish a foundation of justice.  We see in the law that there are such things as just deserts and punishments that fit a crime.  We should expect retribution for the harm we cause.  The law establishes justice.

We need justice if we’re going to have the true power that saves the world: grace.  Let me explain.

If you take a dislike to my cat, cut it in two with a chainsaw and send me the parts in the mail I could respond in three ways.  I could press charges and see you suffer for your crime.  Hopefully you’d be forced to pay damages equal to the loss of poor Balthasar.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, cat for cat.  That’s justice.

But perhaps you come and plead with me for mercy.  You hadn’t had your morning coffee, your broadband was infuriatingly slow that day, you’re under financial pressures, it was a moment of madness, you can’t afford the lawyer’s bills, you’ll make it up to me somehow.

Extraordinarily I might show you leniency – I won’t quite exact the level of punishment you deserve.  But of course that’s only lenient because of the expectation of justice.

Thirdly I could show grace.  I could come to your house, forgive you unreservedly, empathize with your financial woes and offer to help you with your bills.  Now that’s extraordinary!

But it’s how the LORD deals with us:

He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.  (Psalm 103:10)

The LORD’s relationship with us is not and cannot be a tit-for-tat one.  He is always showing us incredible grace, condescending to guilty sinners.

And from the Old Testament itself we understand that “law” and “justice” were never an end-point.  The Law and the prophets were always pointing to grace.

Justice serves grace.  It’s only the justice of the law that makes the offer of grace extraordinary.  Grace is truly gracious (and not simply an arbitrary “soft touch”) because the law has determined that “every transgression and disobedience receives a just recompence of reward” (Hebrews 2:2).

And this explains what is a mystery to many: How can Jesus be so pro-law and pro-grace?  Didn’t Jesus famously say:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.  (Matthew 5:38-39)

And yet, only a few verses earlier He said:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.  (Matthew 5:17)

Jesus goes beyond “eye for eye” because He’s filling full the law’s intention.  You see the law’s intention was never to simply balance the scales.  No, the point of justice is to serve grace.  It establishes the losses incurred through sin and demands that they be borne.  But here is grace: the LORD (the offended party) comes to bear the cost Himself.

On the cross Jesus turns His cheek to a world that has given Him a cosmic slap in the face.  It is the ultimate show of grace.  But He is not thereby abolishing justice.  He’s upholding it.  His grace is that He bears the losses the law demands.

Interestingly the phrase in Exodus that introduces “eye for eye” is often forgotten: “Life for life” (Exodus 21:23).  And Jesus establishes the true meaning of “life for life.”  He comes to guilty sinners and says “Life for life!”  But not, “yours for mine”, “mine for yours.”

The ultimate God-man dynamic is not legal.  It’s counter-conditional, extraordinary grace.  And as Gandhi himself would discover in the political arena, this is what changes hearts and carries the victory.

Thou shalt not covet

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Exodus 20:12; Matthew 5:21-37

What do we make of a regime that has “thought crime” on the statute books?

Well then, what do we think of God the Father?  Because on Mount Sinai here is His concluding word of the ten:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

“Covet” is actually a rare word in the King James translation.  It comes to us (through French), from the latin cupiditas, meaning desire.  And that’s certainly how the Authorized Version translates it most often: to desire or delight in.

It’s a heart word.  It’s about where we set our affections.  And here it is, inscribed on stone by the finger of God and given to the people.  The concluding commandment of the ten is about my heart’s desires!  What kind of law is this?

How do you legislate desires?

Well actually, this is what the law has pointed towards all along.  The first and last words are book-ends to show us the intention.  We begin with “thou shalt have no other gods before My Presence” and we finish with “thou shalt not covet.” That’s because the question throughout is: ‘Where will you look for life?  Will you look to the Presence of the unseen LORD, the Son of the Most High God?  Or will you look to the things of this world, your neighbour’s house, wife, job, car, things?’  The Good Life is about setting our hearts upon the LORD before everything else.

Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, gives a brilliant exposition of the law’s expectation for our hearts.  He’s commenting on the first commandment and says:

“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart… That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

“Therefore it is the intent of this commandment to require true faith and trust of the heart which settles upon the only true God, and clings to Him alone. That is as much as to say: “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.”

As Luther will go on to say, every breaking of the other commandments is first a breaking of this one.  First, our hearts stray from Christ. However we travel from there, it will end badly.  The tenth commandment is simply the flip-side of this truth.  It describes the “other gods” which we’re tempted to love.

And in between 1 and 10 we are continually dealing with heart issues.  It’s never been about surface level moral action.  Even when it tells us “thou shalt not kill or commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13-14), its meaning goes far beyond actual homicide and sexual activity.  As Jesus shows, the law highlights more than my behaviour, it highlights my heart – my anger and my lust (Matthew 5:21-30).

But the law can’t change my heart.  In fact, when the law comes into my heart, it doesn’t just highlight sinful desires, it provokes them.

The Apostle Paul describes this process in Romans 7.  He considers our verse for today “thou shalt not covet” and confesses:

the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence (i.e. lust).

It’s the old truism – nothing makes me want to walk on the grass more than the sign: “Do not walk on the grass.”

What are we like?  A good law comes with right and proper expectations for my heart and soul.  But not only does this law expose my sin, it multiplies it.  That’s how sinful I am.

Many people want to draw a distinction between law and grace as follows: law deals with externals, grace deals with internals.  This is a dangerous mistake.  The law also deals with internals.  The law has all sorts of expectations for my inner life.

The difference between law and grace is not external versus internal: it’s me versus Him.  Under the law I consider myself as the Faithful One with a heart set on God.  Under grace I look to Christ as the Faithful One who accomplished the law (inside and out) on my behalf.

My hope is not in my ability to look to God alone and refrain from coveting.  My true hope is Jesus Christ who resisted all temptation, set His face resolutely for the cross, and for the joy set before Him endured the cross, abandoning Himself wholeheartedly to the Father.

When I see Jesus living the Good Life for me, my heart is moved.  And maybe, just maybe, my neighbour’s ass loses something of its allure!

Honour thy father and thy mother

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Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 3:14-21

It’s interesting to read modern alternatives to the Ten Commandments. When people today are asked about their own vision of the Good Life, their silence on the subject of God is deafening.  Few people today see God as having anything to do with the “Good Life.”   Maybe that’s not surprising.

What is surprising, is when Christians consider God to be irrelevant to the ten commandments.  Some Christians try to cite the ten commandments as a ‘common sense’ morality that could be detached from the God who gave them.  They’d like to argue that the whole world not only can agree on them, but that it pretty much has.  They claim that the law written on these tablets of stone is some “natural law”, known by all – at least ‘deep down.’

Yet in reality these are particular commands from a particular God to a particular people.   And the prohibitions on killing, stealing, lying, etc, flow out of the particular Lord He happens to be.

On Mount Sinai the unseen LORD begins by stating how particular He is – “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”  (Exodus 20:2)  And His first three words to His people are strictly theological:

1. Have no other gods before my Presence (i.e. my Son).

2. Do not bow down to or serve any other gods.

3.  Do not carry my name vainly.

Then straight away we reach the fourth command: Sabbath – a Jewish observance if ever there was one.  And together these first four commands (often known as “the first table”) are the foundation for the last six.  Particular love for this particular covenant God is not an optional preamble – it is the very heart of the law.

Then, having established the priority and power of the first table, we now come to the second table – love for others.  And here is the first word that flows out of love for God…

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. (Exodus 20:12)

The very first command regarding love of people makes it unavoidably concrete.  Not everyone has a spouse or siblings or even a neighbour.  Everyone has a mother and father.  And so our Heavenly Father says “Start there.”  Not with an abstract love for humanity but with those relations closest to you.

Linus, a character in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, once remarked: “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”  He identifies a real issue for the human heart.  We can easily nurse a feeling of goodwill towards humanity. But loving the actual people in our lives is where we constantly fail.  Yet that’s what we actually need if all our talk about loving the world is to take flesh.  We don’t need more love for “the world”.  We need to love the people we live with.  And so the Father says: “Love your parents.  Honour them.”

As the Apostle Paul will say, God the Father is He “of whom the whole family [on] … earth is named.”  (Ephesians 3:15)  Therefore to honour our heavenly Parent we must honour our earthly parents.

Conversely, if we fail to honour our earthly parents it’s a sign we are out of sorts with God.

In Romans 1, Paul reveals a litany of sins.  He says of the human race estranged from God:

Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents.  (Romans 1:30)

We probably don’t think that “disobedient to parents” belongs on such a list.  But for Paul it summarizes what’s wrong with the human heart.  Our natural inclination towards childish rebellion is chilling when you think about it.

Before we’ve even learnt to speak we rebel in all sorts of ways against those who have begotten us.  We owe them our existence and yet we oppose them with a mad mistrust. Dishonour of parents is symptomatic of our dishonouring of God.

The Good Life is different.  The Good Life – as lived by Jesus – loves our heavenly Parent and honours our earthly ones.  At the beginning and end of His life Jesus showed what this will look like (Luke 2:49-52John 19:26-27).

The saying is almost true: Charity doesn’t quite start in the home.  It starts in heaven.  But when the life and love of Jesus gets into us, the first outworking is in practical service to our nearest and dearest.

Remember the Sabbath Day

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Exodus 20:8-11; Luke 14:1-6

Where is the world heading?  Climate catastrophes?  Asteroid impact?  Nuclear armageddon?  Global pandemic?  Cosmic ‘big crunch’?  Heat death?

Not according to the Bible.  In the beginning, God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  And ever since, the week has proclaimed to us God’s purposes with the world.  Through His Word going out in the power of the Spirit, this world will be brought to rest, i.e. to perfection, consummation, peace.  The goal is Sabbath.

So we, made in His image, should work and rest like Him:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:  But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

And for centuries the Jews kept the seventh day.  They invested huge significance in keeping it.  For some it was the most important gauge of spiritual health imaginable.  With such a mindset, there were always going to be demands added to the plain words of Scripture.  It got to the point where, in Jesus’ day, simple acts of kindness were considered heinous breaches of the holy day.  (See Luke 14:1-6 for one of many Gospel examples).

But Jesus came to do work – the true work of bringing rest.  He came to remake His world from the inside.  And, just as the law requires, He completed the job by the sixth day (the sixth day being a Friday).

With evening coming and the Sabbath closing in, He cried out from the cross, “It is finished.” (John 19:30).

Christ had accomplished the work on that sixth day.  By “the sweat of His brow” Christ had done it.  And so He rested on that holy Saturday.  Rested in the grave.

Yet wonderfully, on the next day, He rose up into a whole new week – a whole new world!  And in this whole new world, it all begins with consummation and rest.

Under the old covenant the day of rest was at the end.  The goal of life was peace.  But Christ took on that work Himself.  And, having accomplished it, His day (the Lord’s day) is at the beginning.  So we begin with peace.

Now, physically speaking, this world is still the old world.  Creation operates according to the old calendar.  It is groaning, awaiting its seventh day of rest.  And we must still live in our old bodies, groaning along in our worldly labours.  We look ahead to a world perfected.

But, spiritually speaking, Jesus has begun a whole new world.  And by the Spirit we are brought into His resurrection reality.  Spiritually speaking we have entered that rest.  We are on the other side – beyond the seventh day.  We are eight-day people!

Because we share in the life of the risen Lord, we have begun with rest.  We may live in a fallen world with fallen bodies and we may groan along with it, awaiting physical Sabbath.  But we never have to strive for spiritual Sabbath.  Right now, and for all time, we have rest for our souls.

Are you weary?  Jesus brings Sabbath – even now – to a world burdened and desperate for rest:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  (Matthew 11:28-30)

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See also “God rested

Taking the Lord’s name in vain

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Exodus 20:7; Romans 2:17-24

Protestors will often march carrying placards: “Not in my name.”  They are incensed that their government would act in ways completely at odds with their own outlook.

At Mount Sinai, the Father is similarly concerned.

“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”  (Exodus 20:7)

More literally you could translate it, “You will not lift the name of the LORD your God up to worthlessness.”  It’s about lifting up / bearing / carrying the name of the LORD.

And religious people are constantly lifting it up to ridicule – using the LORD’s name like a rubber stamp on whatever they want to do.  The third commandment is an Almighty “Not in my name!”

It’s not telling us to refrain from speaking the divine name (as some orthodox Jews take it).

And it’s not really about swearing.

– Jumping Jehoshaphat!
– Now, Mary-Beth-Lou-Ellen, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.

It has implications for swearing.  But you can break the third commandment without ever uttering a word.

A couple of times in the Bible the Lord complains to His people like this:

“For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you.”  (Romans 2:24).

Notice who is to blame for the blasphemy?  Not the cussing heathens – the hypocritical “believers.”  When non-Christians think nothing of the Name of Jesus, who is to blame?  It’s us – the people of God. We have lifted the LORD’s name up to worthlessness.  That’s the problem.

And it affects every area, not just our speaking but our whole lives.  We either commend Jesus – lifting up His name to honour; or we disgrace Jesus – lifting up His name to shame.

Either way, note this, we bear His name.  We cannot choose not to bear His name.  If we belong to the LORD we will carry His name, for good or ill.

In the same way, my wife now carries my name – for better or for worse.  She could do things to drag the Scrivener name through the mud (though she’s several generations too late for that).  Or she could (and does!) lift up the name to honour.

And so with us.  Let us begin with the incredible truth that we do bear the LORD’s name.  We are, after all, the bride of Christ.  We have come to Him as sinful and bankrupt and in His marriage covenant He has taken our sins and debts at the cross and given us His righteousness and riches.  We have been drawn into His family relations and now bear His name.

Today let’s not use it as a rubber stamp.  Let’s wear it as our crown.

Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him.  (Colossians 3:17)

I am a jealous God

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Exodus 20:4-6; 2 Corinthians 11:1-3

It’s right there in the midst of the ten words from Mount Sinai:

“I the LORD thy God am a jealous God”  (Exodus 20:5)

What a horrible idea, we might think, a jealous God!?  What kind of a God gets jealous?

Well Mount Sinai is no unguarded moment of candour.  The LORD is very open about His jealousy.  At a glance I found 34 times in the Bible where the LORD is said to be jealous.  This is not something He seems to be embarrassed about.

And here in Exodus 20 it serves as the justification for his word against graven images.  It’s a case of “Don’t go after other gods because I’m jealous.”

Well again we have to ask, What kind of a God gets jealous?

Answer: A God of love.

You see the concept of jealousy depends on the context of committed relationships.  And the LORD wants a devoted, exclusive, covenant union with His people.  Because He’s a God of love, He’s a God of jealousy.

Let’s notice a few things about the LORD’s jealousy.

First the word for “jealous” could just as well be translated “zealous”.  In fact both English words have come to us from the Greek translation of this word (“zelos”).

In Hebrew it’s derived from the word for ‘red’.  It’s the idea of hot-blooded commitment.

The Bible has all sorts of examples of good jealousy on a human level (e.g. 2 Corinthians 7:7,11; 9:2; 11:2).

And we can all think of good jealousy – good, appropriate, hot-blooded, protective, possessive zealous ardour.  In fact if this jealousy is missing from a relationship, you may wonder whether true love is also missing.

So now let’s think of the jealousy of a Father who tells His people: “Thou shalt have no other gods before My Presence.” (Exodus 20:3).  He jealously covets His people’s affections and wants them whole-heartedly devoted to their true Bridegroom, Christ.

We are very far here from the popular conception of God as some distant omnibeing indifferent to the plight of his creatures.  Neither is He some stern patriarch in the sky unwilling to reveal his feelings lest he lose face.  Here is a God with His heart on His sleeve.  “I am jealous” He says.  In fact a few chapters later He will say “My name is Jealous.” (Exodus 34:14).

God loves with a burning, faithful, marital  love.

First of all the Father loves His Son in the power of His Almighty Spirit.  It is a marriage-like love – rightly possessive and rightly jealous.

Then He loves His people – those who are married to His Son.  He loves the bride of Christ with that same ardent love.

And throughout the Bible God’s people, for their part, are called to be “faithful.”  Not simply “obedient”, “faithful”!  And when we sin we’re not just called “transgressors”, we are called “adulterers.”

To be on the inside of God’s jealous love is a wonderful thing.  It is to be rightly possessed and secure.  It’s the sunshine of His love.

To be on the wrong side of His jealousy is a terrible thing.  Because for those who demean, threaten or harm the objects of His love (either His Son or His people) they will feel that jealousy as the consuming fire of His wrath.

The same jealous love will be experienced in two very different ways.  For some – the sunshine of His love.  For others – the blazing fire of His judgements.  This is the jealous God.

What kind of a God is this?  Certainly not a cold, calculating, clockwork God.  And not a God to be tamed or taken for granted.  Here on Mount Sinai we see a passionate God entering into committed, covenant relationship with us.  He is not afraid to wear His heart on His sleeve.

But it’s on the mountain of Calvary that we see the full depths of His passion.  There on the cross His heart was not simply bared but pierced.  His jealous love was not merely named but demonstrated for all time.  With His arms outstretched to the world the question for humanity is not “Will you continue to disobey this Cosmic Lawgiver?”  The question is “Will you continue to spurn this Jealous Lover?”

Graven images

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Exodus 20:1-3; Jeremiah 2:9-13

Where do we look for strength, for comfort, for help, for love, acceptance and joy?  Where do we look for life?

According to the Bible, the answer is: “all the wrong places!”

We are inveterate idolaters.  We are always setting our hearts on idols: on things that are not God.  The human race was made to worship, but estranged from the life of God, we worship everything but God.

The very first word from Sinai was this

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  (Exodus 20:3)

The Good Life means not preferring any gods before God.

Well actually the King James have done what the majority of translations have done – they have finished the sentence with the word “me.”  But more literally the Unseen LORD on Sinai says “You will have no other gods before My Face.”  Or you could equally say “My Presence.”  It has been the Face or Presence of the LORD who has saved the people and brought them to Sinai (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:37).  And so the Father says to the people, “You’re mine, I have redeemed you.  Here is the Good Life: you won’t have any other gods except my Son!”

It’s the Son of God who is the true Divine Image.  He is the One we’re meant to look to in order to see God.  He is the One we look to in order to receive life.  But when people resist the first word from Sinai – Look to Jesus – they will immediately look to other images.

Spirituality abhors a vacuum.  When you stop worshipping Jesus, you start worshipping something – anything – else.

And so, here comes the second word from Sinai:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.  (Exodus 20:4-5)

Perhaps we think we’re free from idolatry since we have not bowed down to a statue recently.  But “graven images” are not defined by their materials but by their effect.  It’s not how they’re produced.  It’s what they produce in us.  They are things we bow down to or serve.

So, obviously, it’s stupid to make a wooden statue and then serve it (read Isaiah’s devastating send-up of that kind of idolatry).   But the Bible speaks equally of the “graven images of our hearts” (see Ezekiel 14 for instance).

Our hearts are captured by any number of enslaving passions.  So we might start a hobby and then get obsessed.  Or choose a career and then be enslaved to it.  Or embark on some scheme and find ourselves dancing to its beat.  That’s just like carving an idol and then bowing to it.  We start off in charge, but soon we bow to it, and it rules us.

Isn’t that the nature of our hearts?  We go after sex, money, power etc but the things we choose end up choosing us.

For me it was something as paltry as cricket.  I used to have a T-shirt that said “Cricket is life, the rest is mere detail.”  And though I’d laugh about it, that was essentially the way I lived – spending every hour I could chasing a little red ball around a field.  And when my cricketing dreams were ended, how did I feel?  Did I feel like a failed cricketer?  No, I felt like a failed person.  When something is your life and it crumbles, it feels like death.  Which only goes to show – it was a graven image all along.  A created thing.  A good thing.  But I’d turned it into a god thing.  And when we invest our hopes and dreams into these little idols they break our hearts.

More importantly it breaks God’s heart (as we’ll see tomorrow).  His very first word to us is to seek life in Christ.  And that’s the only solution.  We’ll only wean our hearts from graven images when we behold the true Image of God, Jesus Christ. As the old Scottish preacher, Thomas Chalmers, once said:

“The heart is…  so constituted [that] the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one.”

This works in every area of life – religious or otherwise.  At university we’d talk about the countries we’d visited, the parties we’d been to, the romantic conquests.  Fast-forward 5 years and we are changed people.  Now we compete over who has worked the longest week:

‘I’ve worked 60 hours this week’
‘That’s nothing, I’ve worked 70 hours.’
‘I haven’t been home since October’
‘I wear a nappy to save on bathroom breaks.’

The partying has cut back drastically.  How?  Fresh will-power?  No.  New passion.  Fast-forward 5 years again and now it’s kids that dominate the discussion.  Now we all have a much healthier perspective on career.  Again, how?  Fresh wisdom?  Not really.  Just a new controlling passion.  In Chalmers’ words, there is an expulsive power to a new affection.

But there is the greatest power in that original affection: the Presence and Image of the unseen LORD, Jesus Christ.  He is our first love.  Returning again and again to Him is our only liberation from enslaving idols.  We must see Him as the Source of our strength, comfort and joy.

In the words of Jeremiah, those idols are broken wells, while Jesus is a Fountain of Living Waters (Jeremiah 2:11-13).  Forsake the fakes, return to the Source.

Jesus Christ… is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:20-21)