Okay: last week, as the thunder from Mount Sinai began to speak to the people of Israel, he started by saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
And because this sentence was an echo of how he had begun his covenant with Abraham 600+ years earlier, the people of Israel, trembling at the foot of the mountain, understood right away that this terrifying God wants to continue the same covenant with them: he wants to adopt them as his children. He wants to become their Heavenly Father. He wants to transfer their citizenship out of the enslaving kingdom of Egypt into his eternal kingdom of unlimited, unconditional love.
Then the thunder went on to speak the first of what will be ten commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
And with this first commandment, God brought his people back in time to the garden at the very beginning where everything went wrong in the first place. Back then the original man and woman had chosen to love themselves as gods, and that decision destroyed their covenantal parent/child relationship with God. “So,” the Lord said last week, “as I go back now to restore that covenantal relationship and make you my children again, you — my restored children — will need to go back and relearn how to love me again as your only Heavenly Father.”
In short, this is what God said to his people: “I love you. I have already saved you. Now I want you to love me in return.”
And last week we realized that this offer of transfer and adoption was not just for ancient Israel, it is for all who say “yes” to God’s covenant. This covenant of restoration is also for us. Which means that the first commandment is for us also: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
But as we closed last week, we realized that — while we do have some sense of what it means to love God — we really do not know what it means to love God. We realized that we need God to unpack this first commandment a bit more, so we can know in more detail what practical difference this commandment should make in our lives.
Well, it seems God knew his people would need some more details, some more practical tips on how to have no other gods before him. So now, in our text today, he speaks again from the darkness at the top of the mountain:
 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Okay. We asked for some more detailed, practical tips, and…we have received!
So now I guess we had better sort through these details piece by piece and make sure we understand them.
Let’s start at the top:
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
This word translated “image” here is the ancient Hebrew word for “idol”. In the culture of that time, an idol was an object that was the container for the essence of a god. And idol-worshiping was something that every single culture on earth practiced.
This is how it works: first, someone wants to seek the blessing of some particular god. He hires a craftsman. The craftsman takes some kind of material and shapes it to be a physical representation of that god. Then the customer hires a bomoh. The bomoh performs some kind of ritual that causes the essence of that god to enter it. Then the customer takes it home, or sets it up in his field, or wherever he wants to direct that god’s attention. He bows down before it. He prays to it. He “feeds” it. And after he has fed it enough, the god is obligated to give him what he wants.
Now, the worshiper believes that, through the idol’s eyes, the god is watching everything that happens in front of it, and will be inspired to copy what it sees. So if the worshiper needs a good harvest, he sprinkles water in front of the idol, hoping the god will copy him and…bring rain. If the worshiper wants his animals to mate and reproduce, he has sex in front of the idol, hoping the god will be inspired to have sex with other gods and goddesses and pour out a spirit of fertility on the worshiper’s animals. And so on…
And the appeal of this kind of worship is pretty obvious, right? How great is it to have gods that you can manipulate with rituals, and bind to certain objects that belong to you, so that wherever you go they have to go with you?
Well, God is telling the Israelites, “Don’t do that!”
“Because I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”
…and this bit makes sense, right? We can see now how this second commandment links to the first one: last week God did say, “You shall have no other gods before me,” which is really just another way of saying “I am a jealous God: I want you to love me only and above all!“
But here is a question we could ask: isn’t jealousy a sin?
The answer is: no. Not necessarily. Jealousy can be a sin, but that depends on who is being jealous and what they are jealous about.
See, jealousy is actually a form of love. Love can also be a sin, depending on who is loving whom and why.
For instance, last week we noticed that when humans practice self-love it is a sin, because we are incomplete individuals who do not intrinsically deserve love. We were designed from the beginning to receive love from our Father as a gift, not because he owes it to us.
But when our Heavenly Father practices self-love it is not a sin — first because he is completely worthy of love; second because his self-love is also love for the other two persons of the Trinity: his self-love is not a selfish love.
It works the same way with jealousy:
When the Lord says, “Do not worship idols because I am a jealous God,” he is saying, “It would be a sinfully destructive waste of your time to worship idols because I am the only God who is actually worthy of worship.”
Which is true. After all, if those other gods can be controlled through rituals, if their essence can actually be bound to certain physical objects, then they are not really very powerful gods. But the Lord — the true God, the Trinitarian God — cannot be controlled because he is the One Who Controls; his essence cannot be bound to anything in creation, because he is the Creator. Obviously, then, he must be greater than any other god — real or imagined — greater than any other being, spirit, power, or authority.
But that is not all God has to say about his jealousy. He goes on to say:
“I am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”
And…uhhh, wow. That just took a really dark turn. Dark because this sentence says that those who worship idols actually hate God, and dark because this sentence suggests that God will punish the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of someone who worships an idol.
Isn’t God’s response to idolatry here just a bit extreme? Why is idolatry such a big deal for him?
For instance: why can’t God’s people have a relationship with God as the Creator, the God over all gods, while also maintaining a relationship with other smaller gods, spirits, angels, djinn, dead saints and other beings of that sort? After all, the Almighty Creator of the whole universe has got to be quite busy, right? Why wouldn’t he — as the great King over all kings — delegate small things like rain and fertility to more local gods? And why wouldn’t we just apply directly to those local gods for service?
Well…the bible suggests that God does delegate a lot of the administration of his creation to various species of spiritual beings. In other words, God does have a spiritual civil service: clerks and messengers and soldiers, things like that. But nowhere does the bible suggest that humans should apply directly to those civil servants for service.
Why not? Because humans are God’s children, made in his image; we are the sons and daughters of the King! So if we want something we should just go directly to our Royal Father and ask as princes, with dignity and directness. For us to approach some low-ranking civil servant, bow down to him, slip him some food, and have sex in front of him hoping that he will do us some kind of favour in return is…really degrading to us as heirs of the kingdom, and insulting to the goodness and generosity of our Heavenly Father! So:
Why is idolatry such a big deal? Because our Father is jealous for his own reputation: he does not want to be treated as if he is an emotionally absent father who is too busy to care about his children. And our Father is jealous for his children’s reputation: he also does not want to see his children degrading themselves before civil servants, or being degraded by civil servants.
Okay. So now that we understand how profoundly degrading idolatry is to God and to his children, we can understand why God would say that those who practice idolatry actually hate him: he is so obviously good and generous that any child who chooses to degrade themselves before a civil servant instead of approaching God directly has clearly chosen to believe that God is neither good nor generous. They are calling God a liar. And anyone who calls God a liar obviously hates him.
In short: anyone who tries to bribe God’s civil servants instead of going directly to the Father proves that they have actually rejected God as Father, they are not actually a child of God.
That is bad. But still we struggle with this bit, don’t we: “punishing the children for the sin of the parents”? How is that fair?
In fact, doesn’t the bible say in another place: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin”?
Yes, the bible does say that. In fact, it was Moses who wrote that in his Book of Deuteronomy.
So…isn’t this verse a contradiction of that verse?
No. Let me explain:
As we discovered last week, the first commandment is all about healing the relationship between God and his people, which has been destroyed by human self-love. In order to be healed, God’s people need to stop practicing self-love and start practicing the love of God and others. How, practically, can they do this? Well, according to the second commandment today, a key element in the process is learning how to give up the worship of idols and approach God directly instead.
But how does giving up the worship of idols help to heal God’s people of their self-love?
Because the worship of idols is itself an act of self-love. And obviously no one who continues to practice self-love through deliberate idolatry is going to be healed of their self-love because they keep on poisoning themselves with those ritual acts of self-love.
Oh, but quick question: how is idol-worship an act of self-love?
Well, let’s think think it through: why does anyone make an idol in the first place? In order to seize control of a god. And why does anyone want to control a god? In order to get something from that god. Therefore, the worship of idols is inherently self-centered, not other-centered. Idol worship, by its very nature, is focused on the desires of the worshiper, not upon the glory of the god being worshiped.
Okay. But, now: how does this resolve the apparent contradiction between “punishing the children for the sin of the parents” and “each will die for their own sin”?
This is how: anyone who chooses to hate God by continuing to worship idols is not just poisoning themselves, they are also — quite naturally — poisoning their children, training them to practice ritual self-love. So the first generation practices idolatrous self-love, and reaps the consequences; the second generation practices idolatrous self-love, and reaps the consequences; the third generation practices, and reaps the consequences…each generation punished for their own continuing practice of idol worship, just as the bible says.
Okay. But then why does God make a point here of saying that he will be “punishing the children for the sin of the parents”?
Because God is not just talking to random pagan idol-worshipers like the Egyptians. He is talking to his own covenant nation. He is talking to people who have already said, “Yes, we want to have no other gods before you.” And we all know, intuitively, that someone who makes a vow to love and then hates instead is actually worse than someone who hates but never made the vow to love. A man who gets married and then sleeps with a woman who is not his wife is worse than a man who is not married and sleeps with his girlfriend who is not his wife. A nation that promises to worship God alone and then worships other gods instead is worse than a nation that worship other gods because they never agreed to worship God alone.
God is happy to save pagan, idol-worshiping people: that is what he has just done by saving Israel from Egypt! — along with people from many other nations. If God kept punishing pagan children for what they learned from their pagan parents to the third and fourth generation, the punishments would never end!
But after God has saved a pagan, idol-worshiping people like Israel and brought them into his covenant, and after they have self-consciously agreed to enter that covenant, now they have an obligation to practice their freedom from idolatry. If a covenant family continuously and self-consciously keeps on turning back to the degradation they were just saved from they are not just rejecting God as Father, they are breaking the covenant they have already agreed to. And that is worse than never entering into the covenant in the first place.
So what God is saying here is that his specific judgement upon those who call themselves his children and then decide to hate him anyway is this: he will let their children reap the bitter fruit of their rejection of him. He was happy to intervene in the lives of pagan idol-worshipers and rescue them and their children from slavery to self-love. But he will not intervene in the lives of covenant idol-worshipers: he will make sure the natural consequences of their deliberately idolatrous self-love trickles on down to the third and fourth generation, he will allow each generation to degrade itself in the same way it was taught by the previous generation.
…and that is dark. That is sobering.
So: thank God he did not stop speaking there!
He did say, “I am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” But then he said: ”but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
The real point of emphasis here is the difference between these numbers. In the bible, a phrase like “three or four” is a way of saying “just a few”, whereas a phrase like “a thousand” is a way of saying “an uncountably huge number”.
So: yes, the idea of punishment to the third and fourth generation is a sobering one — but three or four generations is nothing compared to a thousand generations. God’s punishment for deliberately violating the covenant is severe, but his reward for keeping the covenant is immeasurably greater.
That is how good and generous the true God is: he punishes the great sins of his people just a little bit, just enough to drive them to the end of themselves so that they come to their senses and turn back to him. But on the other hand, he rewards even their smallest moments of faithfulness with a love that is too great to be measured.
How amazing is that!
But now we have questions, don’t we.
Like: how are we, as Jesus’ covenant people today, supposed to keep this commandment? Most of us have never carved an idol, or commissioned one. Some of us grew up in a house with a shrine and were taught to bow down and pray to it — but we left that household when we joined Jesus’ household. Some of us were taught to bow down and pray in the direction of a carved stone far away across the world — but we don’t do that anymore either.
Does that mean we can check this commandment off our list as completed?
Not so fast. Last week we noticed that this great event at Mount Sinai — when God sat down on a mountain and taught his people what he expected from them — was a preview of the time in the New Testament when Jesus sat down on a mountain and taught his people what he expected from them: the famous Sermon on the Mount that we find in the Gospel of Matthew.
And when we turn to that famous Sermon in the book of Matthew, we find that Jesus talked quite a lot about the nature of prayer and worship and what it is supposed to look like in the lives of his people.
For instance, Jesus says this at one point: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Now, Jesus was preaching to Jewish people, the descendants of ancient Israel. The Jews were very careful to avoid carving idols, or commissioning idols. Like us, they would never bow down or pray to a shrine or a black rock in the southern desert. So they thought they could check this commandment off their list as completed.
But Jesus is pointing out to them that it is possible to practice the spirit of idolatry without practicing physical idolatry. They might not worship an idol in order to win favour from the god within that idol, like pagans do; but they do “practice righteousness” publically in order to win favour from other people and from God — which is actually the same sin.
“So,” Jesus says, “when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Instead,” he says, “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
See, giving to the needy is good! We should do it. But we must give without trying to manipulate a blessing out of man or God. When we give quietly, our giving ceases to be an act of idolatrous manipulation and becomes instead an act of faith in our Father’s goodness and generosity.
“And,” Jesus goes on, “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Instead,” he says, “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Oh, and also: when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Once again: prayer is good! We should pray. But we must pray without trying to manipulate a blessing out of man or God. When we pray quietly, when we pray simply and directly, our praying ceases to be an act of idolatrous manipulation and becomes instead an act of faith in our Father’s goodness and generosity.
“And,” Jesus says next, “when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Instead,” he says, “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
This is the same principle at work: fasting can be good, but only if it is an act of worship focused on the glory and goodness and generosity of God, not upon the manipulative desires of the worshiper.
And then, in the very next verse, Jesus exposes the true rotten heart motivation that lies beneath all idolatrous worship. He says, “Listen: do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” In other words: turn away from self-love and the self-centered worship of idols. “Instead,” he says, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Okay. Point taken, Jesus: idolatry=self-worship=storing up treasures on earth. Don’t do that! Store up treasures in heaven instead.
But now we want to know how. How are we supposed to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven?
“This is what you should do,” Jesus says a few minutes later: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. After all, which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So,” he goes on, “you were wondering how to store up treasures in heaven? This is how: in everything, stop doing for yourself what you want to be done to you, and instead do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
And there it is, brothers and sisters: that is the second commandment explained by Jesus himself. Idolatry is not primarily an external act of carving and bowing, it is an internal attitude of self-worship, it is the belief that it is up to us to manipulate the system in order to store up treasures for ourselves in this world. And this internal attitude can take even good things like generosity and prayer and fasting and turn them into acts of manipulation, degrading for us and insulting to God.
And the antidote to this poison, Jesus says, is learning to see God as a good and generous Father, learning to trust in our identity as his beloved children, and then learning to ask our Father directly for what we need, what we want. And as we learn to trust in our Heavenly Father’s love and provision, we will become less selfish, we will become more generous, we will begin to do to others what we would have them do to us — and so we will begin to be healed of the self-love that destroyed our relationships in the first place.
So, brothers and sisters, what do you think: can we check this commandment off our list as completed?
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the answer is ”no”. Now that Jesus has expanded the definition of idolatry to include “doing good things to impress others so that we can store up treasures in this world,” well…it is pretty obvious that we are just as idolatrous as those who bow down before a household shrine or a black rock in the southern desert.
In fact, if we are going to be very honest, we have to admit that our “Christianized” idolatry is actually worse than the obvious pagan kind. Pagans ignore the true God and try to manipulate God’s civil servants instead: angels and demons and dead people — and that is bad enough. But our “Christianized” idolatry is actually focused on trying to manipulate God himself as if he is nothing more than a civil servant. And that is infinitely more degrading to him and to us!
And if we are going to be very very honest, we have to admit that this attitude of treating our Father like a civil servant has come to dominate our modern approaches toward corporate worship. It is easy for us to accuse our Roman Catholic and our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters of idolatry. After all, their churches are full of carved statues. And when they pray, they are encouraged to speak to dead Christians they call Saints, who will then forward the message on to Jesus — just like civil servants.
But is our modern Protestant Evangelical approach to worship any less idolatrous? How many of us have been taught to come to worship focused on ourselves instead of upon the glory of the Father who meets with us here? How many of us have been taught to test worship based on how much we get out of it — how it makes us feel — instead of letting worship test us? And how many of our modern churches have turned aside to manipulating their own congregations in order to give them what they want? Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches are guilty of adding statues of saints and angels into what should be pure Christian worship. But modern Evangelical churches are guilty of adding louder music, bigger sub-woofers, lights, smoke machines and complicated emotional rituals designed to manipulate the Holy Spirit into showing up “in power” so that we can “experience” him. There is even a name for this false kind of Christian worship that has become so popular today: it is called Moral Therepeutic Deism. Basically, that means: “I worship God because he makes me feel good about myself. If a church stops making me feel good, I move to a different church.”
So brothers and sisters, we all live lives dominated by idolatry both personal and corporate. We were born into self-love, and the painful truth is a vast majority of Christian churches in our world continue to train us in how to keep on practicing self-love, Sunday after Sunday, week after week. Most Christian churches will say that we are all free to approach the throne of our Father directly — while at the same time walling him off behind curtains of emotional music and complicated rituals and layer after layer of civil servants. And how can we ever be healed of our self-love when we are both the source and the product of all idolatry in this world? Where can we go to escape from ourselves? Where can we go to escape from what we have made?
What are we supposed to do? How can we have any hope of keeping this second commandment?
Well, Jesus just told us what to do: ask. Ask to be rescued from ourselves and from the systems of false worship we have designed. Ask, and you will receive.
So look: if you are here today and you are not a Christian, this is how you escape from yourself and from the world: you ask Jesus to rescue you. He will hear you and answer you. He will invite you to enter into a covenant with him. All you have to do is say “yes”, and sign your agreement by being baptised. And through that covenant ceremony, you will be officially adopted as God’s child; God will become your Heavenly Father — and from there, your healing will begin.
But what about those of us who have already been adopted through baptism, what are we supposed to do to keep this commandment?
This is tough. Because, if you are anything like me, you have already found that just being baptised did not cure you of idolatry and selfishness. Self-love and the desire to manipulate have been woven into the substance of who we are as human beings. Idolatry exists within us and all around us in the social systems we have designed. What are we supposed to do about that?
Well, Jesus just told us what to do: remember. Just as we heard him say last week, so again this week he is telling us to remember. Remember that, through the covenant, God is already our Father. And he is good and generous beyond all our comprehension. And so, remembering this, continue to ask to be rescued from ourselves and from our man-made systems of false worship. Let us continue to ask knowing that we will receive the healing we need, we will learn to love God above all.
And that is Good News. That is the foundation of our hope.
But of course we still want some practical tips on how to make this real in our lives today, so that we can begin to experience some healing now, in this world as well as the next.
So, here is practical tip #1, direct from Mount Sinai — direct from Jesus Christ — to us: flee from all systems of false worship. Refuse to participate.
But here is a question we might ask about that: why? If we are already safely sealed within the covenant, adopted as God’s children, our citizenship transfered into God’s kingdom, why worry about how we worship in this world?
This is why: because we, as adults, may be sealed up safe within the covenant; we may be mature enough to sift out all the idolatrous additions a church has added to pure Christian worship; we may be more-or-less immune to the poison of false worship — but our children certainly are not. And how terrible would it be for we who have been redeemed from the degradation of idol worship to then condemn our own children by teaching them to continue to degrade themselves with idolatrous worship! Parents who do this are robbing their own children of the healing they themselves have been offered, which is a hateful act. And it is very very likely that parents who hate their own children in this way actually hate God also — it is likely they were never in covenant with Jesus in the first place, they just thought they were, they just pretended to be.
So, brothers and sisters…please, let us take this warning to heart: flee from all systems of false worship, for our own sake and for the sake of the generations that follow.
But now we really want to know: how can we tell the difference between true and false worship? Should we avoid churches with statues of saints and angels? What about churches with stained glass windows? Should we avoid churches that have really amazing music and beautiful sanctuaries? What about churches with giant screens and smoke machines? Are all these things just distractions from pure Christian worship?
…those are questions that really need to be answered on a case by case basis. So, rather than focusing on what we should not do, let’s focus on what we should do, because that will be easier.
And in this methodology we are following in the footsteps of the Reformed tradition. The Reformers of 500+ years ago, when they were wrestling with this question “what is pure Christian worship?” decided not to spend a lot of time listing all the things we should not do in worship, because that is a very long list! Instead, they decided to focus on the things that the bible tells us are acceptable to God in worship, since that is a much shorter list.
Here is that list: in worship, we should make sure we
1. practice prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ;
2. read, preach, hear and sing the Word of God;
3. administer and receive the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper); and
4. practice God’s elder-led form of church government and discipline, which can include times of religious fasting and making vows to God.
That is not so complicated, is it! And this is why, in our church, we try to keep our worship simple. This is why our elders here are very careful about what we add into our worship service: we are always asking ourselves, “Will this new song, this new instrument, this new way of doing something help us perform these four things that Jesus has commanded us to do? If it helps us focus on Christ, then yes. If it distracts us from Christ, then no.”
We, as a church, have committed to doing what Jesus commanded us to do in worship, nothing more, nothing less. We know that this does not guarantee that our worship is free from idolatry — after all, we, the worshipers, are the source of the problem. But we do have faith that limiting ourselves to what Jesus told us to do helps keep us closer to the middle of the road.
This is our recommendation to everyone who wants to flee from idolatry: join a church that practices simple Christ-directed worship. Learning to have no other gods before God begins here, in our corporate worship, before it begins to take root in our personal lives.
In closing, I want to make something very clear: worshiping in a healthy church does not guarantee that none of our children will be led astray into self-worship and idolatry. Even good Christian parents can have children who leave the true faith. So we must not seek out pure worship simply as a tool to make sure our kids turn out okay. That is not guaranteed, and that would actually be a manipulative approach to worship.
However, worshiping in an unhealthy, idolatrous, manipulative church does guarantee that almost all of our kids will leave the faith — to the third and fourth generation — simply because they have been taught to love themselves more than God.
We can see this happening in the west right now: after several decades of self-centered feel-good worship, the young people of this generation are leaving the faith in greater numbers than ever before.
And this could be what we are seeing here in Malaysia: the cry of almost every church in our nation is, “Why are all our young people leaving?” Could it be that they are leaving because we in the older generations have forsaken the love we had at first?
To be honest: I hope so. Because if this is true — if wide-spread idolatry in Malaysian church worship is the problem — then this is a problem it is not too late to resolve. It is not too late for us to consider how far we have fallen. It is not too late for us to repent and do the things we did at first, confident that our Father loves to rescue idol-worshipers like us.
So let’s do that together now. Let’s go back to the night Jesus was betrayed, and do what the disciples did.