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No rivals - Deuteronomy 5:8-10

This is a sermon by Matthew Brailsford from the evening service on 20th May 2001.

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A few decades ago a book appeared with the title 'The God I want'. There were contributions from different people setting out, mainly as sceptics, what they wanted in a god they would give allegiance to.

One contributor Stephen Hopkinson expressed his wants list like this: 'I want a god who makes sense out of life as we know it, who gives meaning to the natural processes of the universe. 2nd I want a god who makes sense of the existence of 'me', the personality of which I am conscious myselfwant a god I can understand, who fits into my rational thought & who answers some of my deepest questions'.

Now much of these things are understandable but do you see the direction from which he comes? Mr Hopkinson along with the rest of us, naturally speaking, doesn't want to find the true God & accept him as he is, we want to make a god that suits our tastes, our preferences. We tend not to recognise a God who has made us humans in his image, we humans want to make God in ours The god I want.

Tonight we have reached the 2nd of the 10 commandments or 10 words that God gave to his people over a thousand years before Jesus. It is a commandment that the true God gives to guard us from man made attempts to find & approach Him.

If you've been here the last 2 weeks you'll remember that these famous commands were given to God's redeemed people those rescued from slavery in Egypt. These instructions were not to be obeyed to gain favour with God they already had that, but rather God gave them so they knew how he wanted them to live. It's the same for us as Christians at start of 21st C AD. We're accepted through Jesus' death & resurrection, we are redeemed & we want to go God's way 10 commandments remind us what that involves.

We're going to look at the command & then motives to obey it as we find the 2nd Commandment in Deut 5 (p184) (sermon notes).

1.The Command; Do not make or serve images of the true God

v8 'You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 9You shall not bow down to them or worship them

What does this mean? .If 1st commandment is a reminder of the uniqueness of God v7'You shall have no other gods before me', the 2nd is a reminder that God is not to be represented by an image.

1st Command is about not having other God's

2nd Command is about avoiding wrong views of the true God.

So the 2nd commandment adds something to the 1st not simply another command forbidding worship of false gods what is at stake here is the false worship of the true God & especially, doing that using images.

To many today it seems rather surprising to find this as one of God's key commands. What harm is there in having helpful pictures & statues if it helps focus on God & deepen our spirituality? Some people's temperaments really engage with such an approach they like crucifixes & pictures of Jesus in their homes & some find Church buildings with such things inspire their praise of God what's wrong with that? Why prohibit such things?

These thoughts sound appealing especially as the fashion for pictures & icons of Jesus seem even to have caught on in Christian traditions which used to strongly avoid them.

What does the commandment actually say? V8'You shall not make for yourself an (any) idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below'. Quite comprehensive!

Word 'idol' in v8 means an object, a physical image made from wood, stone or metal. And we're told we should not make idols in the 'form' of anything. This widens the scope further any real or imagined pictorial representations of God are forbidden by him.

Clearly this rules out pictures & statues which show God as anything created. That means pictures & statues representing God as Father, Jesus the Son or the Holy Spirit especially, if our intention is that they will aid our prayer & devotion.

God says we not to make images of God & particularly v9 'You shall not bow down to them or worship (serve) them

Not making an image in the form of anything to represent God does question the wisdom of permanent religious art. Can we really have such pictures or statues & not come to see God in the way he is depicted in the image we focus on?

Now temporary pictures of Jesus eg used in Sunday school to teach about him if they're coloured in & eventually thrown away or left in a book is one thing. Similarly historical films & books about the life of Jesus need to show him as a real man or else the truth of the incarnation (God becoming really human) is subtly obscured. But permanent pictures, perhaps displayed on the wall, so easily lead people to think that this is what God or Jesus are really like. Then the pictures become essential to prayer & praise & we, perhaps unconsciously, begin to 'bow down' & worship ('serve') the image rather than the reality.

Some may say isn't this gong a bit far? I don't worship the icon of Jesus I have in my bedroom, it just helps me focus on him when I come to pray. v8 says we shouldn't make an image as well as not bowing down to one there is such danger involved, for so quickly our sinful hearts become emotionally attached to the object itself & the 2nd commandment is broken.

Why is it so important not to have images?

The answer is that the Glory of God & the spiritual wellbeing of people is at stake. It's not so much how apparently 'helpful' people may perceive images to be, but the truth of them.

i)Dishonour God

No image can rightly represent God. The living God is invisible & spiritual, any man-made representation of God statue or picture cannot do justice to God. In fact a statue or picture will hide more of the truth about God than it reveals.

Many of us will have heard before the incident read to us earlier about the golden calf in Ex32. The people think Moses is not returning from his Mountaintop meeting with God & they want something else.

Have you noticed that what Aaron (Moses' brother) did when he made the bull calf out of the Israelite gold jewellery? He was not making another god to serve but it was meant to be an image of the true God the God they were in a special relationship with.

'Aaron..took what they handed him & made it into a cast idol in the shape of a calf' And the people said 'This is your God O Israel who brought you up out of Egypt'. (the very rescue the true God had brought them). The dedication of the idol is announced with the words 'Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD' (V4,5). The people saw the calf as representing to them, YHWH, the true God. They saw the worship of the golden calf as worship of the true God.

I expect they thought a statue of an animal with great strength would honour the all-powerful God but in fact it insults him. What about God's moral character, his purity & his goodness? Did the Bull point to these things? Actually Aaron's bull calf image, hid the true God's glory.

So called Christian images can do the same think of a crucifix not a plain cross, but cross with the tragic figure of Jesus still nailed to it in a picture or a statue. In the end such an image hides the glory of Christ. It may speak of human weakness, but it hides divine strength. It may point to his pain, but it obscures his joy & power.

Whilst well meant a crucifix covers over the truth that Jesus who died is God, that his cross was a victory & that he is risen & reigning now in heaven. It's unworthy because of what it fails to display.

God is incomparable, so futile to try and represent him. Before he repeats the commandments here in Deut 5 he has just reminded the people in ch 4 v35 that 'You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other', v39 ' Acknowledge & take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above & on earth below. There is no other'.

There is nothing in all creation to compare with who the true God is or what he has done, it is ridiculous & fruitless to imagine that anything v8 'in heaven above or earth beneath or in the waters below' could portray God.

Specifically YHWH is the living God & any carved image is obviously lifeless. Something that can do nothing is no image of the God who can do all things. (Dishonour God)

ii)Mislead People

There is an inevitable ambiguity about a God represented by something humans have created God becomes the god I want not God as he really is & as he has made himself known.

So an image of God, because it is limited, will pervert our thoughts about him, they will lead us to wrong ideas of God.

It's chilling to see what happens after Aaron makes the bull calf for Israel. Because they have an image that obscures the glory of God in his holiness, they think of him as being a God who can be praised by 'eating & drinking & indulging in revelry' (32:6). Their festival to the true God, became an orgy!!

Church history shows too that when the crucifix has been used as an aid to prayer, people have seen devotion to Jesus as brooding over his bodily sufferings & the truth that Jesus rose to life has become sidelined.

Ultimately using images gags the speaking God.

Context of Deut 5 is important. The 10 commandments were given to the people of Israel in that remarkable covenant making occasion on Mt. Sinai (Horeb) as called here in Deut. God got through to his people on that occasion but how?

Turn back a page (182) Dt4:12 'Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but, saw no form; there was only a voice'. Moses then connects this truth directly with the danger of idolatry & image making v15 'You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully so that you do not become corrupt & make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape

God is the speaking God. He makes himself known by addressing his people, making promises, giving challenges, making demands. God did not show them a visible symbol of himself he spoke to them, so now they are not to seek visible symbols of God, simply listen to & live in the light of, his word.

Any attempt to turn God in to a voiceless image is basically an attempt to shut God up the very thought is blasphemous. God is gagged. Reducing God to an image is so dangerous because it is an attempt to escape from the living voice of the living God.

There's a reminder here of another application of this commandment not only are we forbidden to make physical images, but dreaming up our own mental ones is also out of bounds. Wrong ideas inspired by human speculation are also dangerous, because we substitute our own limited ideas for what the true God has told us about himself.

We've already considered the 'The god I want' approach. How often have you heard people say, 'I like to think of God as Usually this is a way of rejecting certain characteristics of God. So often it happens because human reasoning is preferred to what God has made known about himself in his word. We make him in our own image.

But God is not the sort of person we are. He is so other & different from us that we cannot know him unless he tells us about himself. And of course he has.

The 2nd commandment helps us to see that we must take our thoughts about God from his account of himself in the Bible any other source will severely dishonour God, it will lead us into great confusion, & ultimately it will make us idolaters.

(More briefly)

2.Motivation for obedience;

i)The Character of God

God links his command to avoid making images of himself to aid devotion, to what he is like.

V9 'I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10but showing love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.'

To us word 'jealousy' is an ugly characteristic, but in God's case it is the pure expression of his righteous anger when a rival threatens to seduce his people from his loving care.

David Cook the Christian academic & broadcaster who visited Hull Univ a couple of years ago, tells in one of his books how he felt when an English male guest greeted his wife by kissing her. As a good Scot, his 1st instinct was to do a John Prescott & hit him with a left hook! Only later did he discover that a kiss on the cheek is an acceptable greeting in some parts south of the border.

If that Englishman had found himself sitting unexpectedly on his host's doormat with a bleeding nose he might have appreciated that jealousy can be an expression of outraged love.

In the 2nd commandment God is pictured as a furious husband who has come home to find his wife being raped. The root of the Hebrew word for 'jealous' means red. When he confronts rivals God is red with righteous anger, not green with insecure envy. God's burning love doesn't allow him to accept competition for his people's affections. God is jealous he protects his love.

ii)Prospect of Punishment or Reward.

Idolatry whether serving false Gods (as in the 1st Commandment) or wrongly worshipping the true God as here, has consequences. God's right zeal for his honour demands justice. V9 'I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.'

Idolatry is really hatred of God When a public figure is despised what often happens is that some newspaper cartoonist sends them up by drawing a rude picture that characatures them there's some truth in the image, but overall it is a misrepresentation. Wrong ideas of God are misrepresentations of him & God will ultimately punish those who hold to them. If this seems harsh to us humans it's because we fail to realise the total purity of God but also the seriousness of making false images To hold to a distorted picture of God & take your view of God from them, will, in the end, mean a disregarding of his commandments as a whole nothing other than hating God.

The recipients of punishment seem far-reaching. 'I..am a jealous God punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the 3rd & 4th generation of those who hate me

Later in Deut (24;16) we read that each person is responsible for their own sin, a child cannot be punished in law for his father's offences, however in God's providence it is clear that children cannot fully escape the consequences of their parents' sin.

Here the living generations seem to be in sight. In an Israelite extended family often 3 or 4 generations would be together & the effects of one generation's failure to follow the true God & love him keeping his covenant, in other words v9 'those who hate me', would badly affect the younger generations. They would grow up without teaching & with a terrible eg of idolatry which they were likely to follow. We're such individualists today, & we often fail to recognise that our actions affect our children. Our ungodliness now affects others. (P)

But notice too the last verse. While 3 or 4 generations are likely to suffer for their forefather's idolatrous hatred of God, v10 show the extraordinary extent of God's love.

'I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishingbut 'showing love to thousands (probably a thousand generations cf 7:9) who love me & keep my commandments.' Where there is loyalty & love for God, blessing for a very very long time, not just a few generations is promised.

The effects of disobedience last for some time, the effects of loving God last even longer 1000 generations.

Conc

Many may speak of the 'The god I want'. What we need is the true God.

Where do we go to discover the truth about the true God? Well it is in the Bible his revealed word to people & specifically it is to who that written word leads us, to Jesus. For as the Apostle Paul's puts in Col 1:15 Jesus is 'the image of the invisible God..' If we want to know what God is like, look at Jesus if we want to know God, we can do so through Jesus.

Let me finish with the words of the contemporary writer & theologian JI Packer, in what is regarded by many as one of the most significant Christian books of the 20th Century;

'Do we worship the one true God in truth? Or are our ideas of God such that in reality we do not believe in the true God

You may say: how can I tell? Well, the test is this. The God of the Bible has spoken through his Son. The light of the knowledge of his glory is given to us in the face of Jesus Christ. Do I habitually look to the person & work of the Lord Jesus Christ as showing me the final truth about the nature & the grace of God? Do I see all the purposes of God as centring upon him?' (Knowing God p50)

If that is my foundation then it is the true God I serve & he is my God.


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