A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on April 7, 2019.
“And 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’” (Exodus 20:1–3).
The children of Israel were led out of Egypt to Mount Sinai. A pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, the visible manifestation of God’s glory descended, wrapping the mountain in smoke. There was thunder and lightning and a heavenly trumpet blasting louder and louder. The people were prepared and assembled, and Moses was called to ascend the mountain into the glory cloud.
So overwhelming was such a spectacle of glory that I believe (with great confidence) that there were no atheists at Sinai that day. No one made arm-chair pontifications about the reality of a divine being. No one curiously questioned the evolution of the cosmos or intelligent life on earth. No one shouted daring blasphemies into the sky, as if to justify the absence of the Creator of heaven and earth.
I also (confidently) believe that there were no agnostics at Sinai that day. As their eyes could see the descended cloud with lightning, as their ears could hear the thunder and blasting trumpet, as their nostrils filled with smoke off the mountain, and as their bodies shook on trembling earth, no one argued for an absent deity. No one considered God to be the great watchmaker in the sky, leaving creation to its uninterrupted order. Into time and space the glorious presence of God was revealed. The historical record states that the children of Israel trembled in fear, pleading to Moses that God not speak to them. His revelation was overwhelmingly awesome.
But God did speak. In what sounded like thunder, God spoke to Moses, not in an angelic tongue nor in unknowable heavenly utterances. God spoke and in doing so revealed Himself to His people. Consider the significance of this moment and what it tells us. There is a God; He has chosen to reveal Himself; and He has chosen specifically to speak in human words. What are the first words He speaks to the assembly? “And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the LORD your God…” He is the God who is.
He Who Is
When God speaks, He begins with words of self-introduction. He reveals Himself by His name: “I am Yahweh, or “the LORD” as it is translated in English. This introduction is significant and serves as a foundation for what follows, including all of His commandments. When God first revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush, He revealed His name as, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14). As one scholar describes the substance of this self-revelation: He is the ever-present, ever-active, interventionist for good, ever-independent, sovereign, inexhaustible God.
Similarly, God reveals Himself to Israel using the same verb, not in first person but in third, Yahweh, literally translated, “I am He who Is.” In English, we translate this verb in third person with a noun, “the LORD,” but don’t miss the significance of the original language. Everything He says, everything He commands is based on this self-revelation: He who is!
Consider, for example, God’s command of holiness stated in Leviticus 19 (and repeated in 1 Peter 1:16): “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Because He is He who is, His command to be holy is rooted in Himself: you must be what you must be because I am what I am. Similarly, the law of God, as we will see, conveys a similar message reflecting the character of God. In other words, the Ten Commandments are revealing as much as they are telling because they are given by He who is. If you want to glimpse the likeness of God, study the Ten Commandments, for example, because they tell of who God is in what He commands.
Consider how foreign this is to our culture’s understanding of what God wants. Our culture begins with us, what we want, and our understanding of God through the defining lens of our sinful flesh. God is incorporated into this man-centered theology as essentially a supporting advocate of our desires. Notice how contrary this is to our passage today. When God speaks, He begins with Himself and who He is, not you. Consider this as an abbreviated reminder: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (WSC 1), not vice versa.
He who is, however, is not an impersonal God; He is “the LORD your God.” This is not a universal announcement to every human created in God’s image. It is a statement of God’s choosing a people of His own possession (Deut. 7:6). He is the Creator of every human being, but He is only the Father of His chosen children. He is the one and only God and has chosen to reveal Himself to the covenant children of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. What is the evidence of this covenantal relationship? “And 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.” He who is is He who redeems.
He Who Redeems
God’s self-introduction to His chosen people includes the work that only He could do and did do for them. Israel did not break free from slavery by uprising and overthrowing Pharaoh. They did not win the battle at the Red Sea. In fact, they contributed nothing to their redemption. God acted monergistically in their redemption. Let this truth serve as a reminder: If your understanding of who God is includes what you have done for yourself, you have a wrong understanding of who God is (and who you are, too). If your “salvation testimony” is about what you achieved, it’s not a testimony of redemption accomplished by He who redeems.
Yet, as we understand that redemption was an act of God, for His glory, so also does it speak of His love for His people. God acted for His glory in love for those whom He loved. Consider this picture of redemption in the Passover. The covenant meal of Israel, celebrating the exodus, was a meal dictated by God. It included the sacrificing of a lamb, brushing the blood of the lamb on the doorposts, unleavened bread and wine with a meal of roasted lamb and bitter herbs. This was Israel’s meal and theirs alone, telling of God’s wrath averted by the blood of the lamb and the redemption of the beloved people of God from slavery. In the meal, God’s glory is declared and His redeeming love for His people celebrated. He who is redeemed His people from the Egyptian house of slavery.
Yet, as we consider this redemption, let us also think upon the correlation to Christian redemption. As abhorrent as human slavery is and how beautiful the redemption from Egypt’s bondage was, consider the human condition of slavery to sin and eternal death and the glorious gospel of redemption by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is for this reason Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal saying of the bread, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24); and, saying of the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25).
He who redeems, according to His sovereign plan of redemption and for His glory, sent forth His Son in the fullness of time, “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). The Passover meal celebrated a great redemption but pointed to a greater one, through the atoning death of Jesus Christ, the lamb of God. So we, like Israel assembled at Sinai, gather in worship of our Redeemer as the redeemed.
He who is, who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ, has redeemed us as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9a), eternally as the children of Israel. What was the purpose of our redemption? Why has He who is redeemed a new covenant people for eternity? His purpose is His glory in our redemption “that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9b). For, He who is is He who redeems; He is God.
He Is God
Because He who is redeemed us, He calls us to live in light of the fact that He alone is God commanding, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The prepositional phase translated “before me” literally means “before my face,” captured eloquently in the Latin expression coram Deo, “before the face of God. Coram Deo perfectly expresses part of the understanding of the first commandment. The redeemed of God are to live all of life (public and private) as before His face, in His presence. This is in one sense a statement of truth; nothing is hidden from His sight (Heb. 4:13), but more specifically it is a picture for our mind’s eye of how we are to live as His children.
Indeed, He is God and there are no others, but there are plenty of false gods that seek our attention and devotion. In Christ we have been redeemed as the sole possession of the one, true God. Yet, the world, the flesh and the devil are constantly seeking to direct our devotion away from God who is to the gods who are not. Let us remember that Lucifer tempted our Lord with all the kingdoms of the world if only He would worship him as a god. If such was the temptation of Christ, can a Christian expect anything different?
To be clear this is the temptation of every Christian: to put anything (and everything) before God. As we gather today to celebrate the New Covenant Passover, the Lord’s Supper, let us confess our fidelity to the Lord our God, to have nothing and no one before Him, but to live obediently before His face. And if you like me are guilty of breaking this first commandment, or any other, in preparation for the sacrament let us confess our sins to the Lord, for He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
Let us rejoice that He is the Lord our God and we are His people. As Moses declared to our fathers, so let us hear clearly today: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). For, He who is is He who redeems; He is God.