FEARING GOD

“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die’”.

Ex 20:18, 19 NIV

In the religion and worship we engage in today there is little sense of “fearing God”. Some of those who lead worship go to great lengths to make it as informal as possible. Joking and laughing have replaced the sense of awe and reverence that once was normal.

The giving of the law at Sinai and the enactment of the covenant was the most significant event, along with the exodus itself, in the whole history of the Israelite people. Here God drew near to them, and all manner of physical signs are recorded as having taken place – thunder and lightning, smoke, the noise of trumpets, and fire. The people felt that letting Moses meet with God and communicate with him was as far as they could, and should go. They had a great sense of the transcendence (otherness) of God. And they knew he was holy – and they weren’t.

Often in great cathedrals in Europe and elsewhere, visitors will whisper. That is a sign that they acquire a feeling of awe, a sense that they are in the presence of God. There is nothing wrong with this, and much of our worship would be enhanced and deepened if we re-captured some measure of the awesomeness and transcendence of God.

FOR REFLECTION
My God, how wonderful thou art, Thy majesty how bright!
How beautiful thy mercy-seat In depths of burning light!
O how I fear thee, living God, With deepest, tenderest fears,
And worship thee with trembling hope And penitential tears!
F.W. Faber.

LAW AND GRACE

“You are not under law, but under grace”.

Romans 6:14 NIV

It is always wise to grasp the deep principles which underlie the overall teaching of the Old Testament. Paul the apostle came to know Christ after being brought up a strict Jew. For him, up to that point, the law (i.e. the Ten Commandments and the many elaborations of them worked out by Jewish scholars) was his rule of life. He was a slave to it. His conversion to Christ freed him from this slavery without releasing him from the need to observe the law. He then knew that the grace of Jesus Christ freed him to live a life dominated by love. Much of what he taught and wrote thereafter seemed to set the law and grace in opposition to each other and many have misunderstood his teaching on this matter.

In fact, the giving of the law by God to Moses on Mount Sinai was itself an act of God in his grace. The commandments were intended to give life – not to hedge people’s freedom or make them miserable. On Sinai God came down to give his people a way of life that would lift them above the waywardness of constantly being dominated by their instincts and passions. The discipline, self-control and respect which adherence to the law would provide raised their quality of life above that of their neighbours of other faiths.

The negative attitude to “the law” which has arisen on the part of Christian believers’ reading of Paul’s teachings needs to be tempered by this recognition of the positive value of the law. By the time of Christ Gentiles were seeking to become Jewish adherents (or proselytes), because of the attractive and disciplined lifestyle of Jewish people.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for the teaching you have given for good living.

THE VALUE OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

“The law of the Lord is perfect”.

Ps 19:7 NIV

The dominance of the Christian faith in many parts of the world over many centuries, and the prominence it has given to the Bible has ensured that the Ten Commandments have played a huge role in shaping legal systems and the acceptance of morality as determining behaviour. Given by the Jewish faith to the world community they have been one of the supreme factors in guiding societies in their understanding of right and wrong.

“God’s commandments are in truth cement for society. It is clear that where these values are acknowledged, communities (our own for instance, in the past) hold together, even in this fallen world; but in proportion as these values are negated, society falls apart. This can be learned both from the paganized world of injustice and revolution that was the northern kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament, and also from the revolutions and counterrevolutions that wrack the world today” (J.I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, p119). The decline of formal religion in many western countries is leading to the slow process of discarding the commandments as the understood and expected standards of conduct and social relationships.

“Putting the Ten Commandments together we see that God wanted to secure his own Lordship over the nation of Israel and then to protect each person’s right to life, home, property and a society run on a basis of proper relationships. The number ten represents the perfection of divine order, a complete cycle with nothing missing, so these ten words of the Lord contain all that is necessary, no more and no less. Lived out, they would create a society at peace with God and humanity” (F. Hogan, Words of Life from Exodus, p182).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help us to cherish your law .

THE COMMANDMENTS ARE THE CEMENT OF SOCIETY

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.

Ex 20:2 NIV

The Ten Commandments are guidance that God expected each and every individual Israelite to obey. But “the ‘you’ whom God first addressed in Exodus 20 was Israel corporately, the nation -family that he had redeemed. And what God was teaching was his will not only for individual Israelites, but also for Israel’s community life.

This too is truth for us, because it is truth for humanity as such. God made us to live in societies – family, church, body politic, the communities of business and culture – and the Commandments show God’s social ideal as well as his purpose for individuals. Indeed, the furthering of good order in society was seen by some as the first use of the law.

What is God’s ideal? A God-fearing community, marked by common worship (commandments 1, 2, 3) and an accepted rhythm of work and rest (commandment 4) plus an unqualified respect for marriage and the family (commandments 5, 7), for property and owner’s rights (commandments 8,10) for human life and each person’s claim on our protection (commandment 6), and for truth and honesty in all relationships (commandment 9).

God’s concern for communities must not be thought of as second to his concern for individuals, for in him the two concerns are organically one. This is clear from the way in which the Old Testament repeatedly sums up his promise, which was Israel’s hope, in one treasure-chest word, shalom. Shalom, translated ‘peace’, proves when unpacked to mean not just freedom from war and trouble, sin and irreligion, but also justice, prosperity, good fellowship, health and all-round communal well-being under God’s gracious hand (J.I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, p118).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, improve and strengthen our community life.

LEARNING FROM THE LAW

“I, the Lord, have spoken to you from heaven”.

Ex 20:22 GNB

“What does God want to teach us today from the Ten commandments? Some talk as if there is nothing for modern people to learn from them, but that is not so. Though more than three thousand years old, this ancient piece of divine instruction is a revelation of God’s mind and heart for all time.

The Commandments show what sort of people God wants us to be. From the list of prohibitions, we learn the behaviour he wishes and loves to see. What does God in the law say “No” to? Unfaithfulness and irreverence to himself, and dishonour and damage to our neighbour. And who is our neighbour? Jesus, asked that question, replied, in effect, everyone we meet. So what does God want us to be? Persons free of these evils; persons who actively love the God who made them and their neighbours, whom he also made, every day of their lives; persons, in fact, just like Jesus, who was not only God’s eternal Son but also his perfect man. A tall order? Yes, but it should not cause surprise that our holy Creator requires us to reflect his moral glory. What else could possibly please him?

Rightly, those who rethought the Christian faith at the time of the reformation four hundred years ago, did not separate God’s law from God himself, but thought of it personally and dynamically, as a word that God is continually publishing to the world through Scripture and conscience, and through which he works constantly in human lives. The law of God is given to us to maintain order in society, to convince us of sin, and to spur us on to obedience” (J.I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, p109).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to keep your law.

THE PATH TO CONTENTMENT

“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs”.

1 Tim 6:10 NIV

We live in a materialistic age. The concentrated pursuit of wealth to the exclusion of all else is a common feature of life today. Rich and poor alike can become completely besotted by the love of money. Christian believers should be fully aware of the dangers of what is, in our time, a spiritual disease.

“Alistair Maclean quotes a story from Tauler, the German mystic and saint. One day Tauler met a beggar. ‘God give you a good day, my friend’ he said. The beggar answered, ‘ I thank God I never had a bad one’. Then Tauler said, ‘ God give you a happy life, my friend’. ‘I thank God’ the beggar said, ‘I am never unhappy’. Tauler, in amazement said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well’ said the beggar, ‘When it is fine, I thank God; when it rains, I thank God; when I have plenty I thank God; when I am hungry, I thank God; and since God’s will is my will, and whatever pleases him pleases me, why should I say I am unhappy when I am not? Tauler looked at the man in astonishment, ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘I am a king’ said the beggar. ‘Where then is your kingdom?’ asked Taul- er. And the beggar answered quietly: ‘In my heart’. Isaiah said it long ago: ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee’” (Isa 26:3KJV) (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, p264).

Be wary of coveting money. It has caused much unhappiness. And it has undermined faith.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be content and grateful.

GODLINESS WITH CONTENTMENT

“Godliness with contentment is great gain…. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction”.

1 Tim 6:6, 9 NIV

The most common form of covetousness is to covet money. It is the be-all and end-all of many people’s lives. Some think of nothing else and regard their obsession as normal.

“Contentment never comes from the possession of external things. As George Herbert wrote: ‘For he that needs five thousand pounds to live is full as poor as he that needs but five’. Contentment comes from an inward attitude to life. In the Third part of Henry the Sixth, Shakespeare draws a picture of the king wandering in the country places unknown. He meets two gamekeepers and tells them that he is a king. One of them asks him; ‘But if thou be a king where is thy crown?’ And the king gives a great answer; ‘My crown is in my heart, not on my head; Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, Nor to be seen; my crown is called content – A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy’. Someone asked Epicurus, one of the old Greek philosophers, for the secret of happiness and of contentment, and his answer was, ‘Add not to a man’s possessions but take away from his desires’” (W. Barclay The Epistles to Timothy and Titus, p131)

A great preacher of long ago, Lacordaire, said, “The rock of our present day is that no one knows how to live on little. It seems to me that the retrenchment of useless expenditure, the laying aside of what may be called the relatively necessary, is the high road to Christian disentanglement of heart” (W. Barclay, p132).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, let me not love the accumulation of money.

CONTENTMENT IN CHRIST

“I have learnt to be satisfied with what I have”.

“Look at Paul, a contented man if ever there was one. From prison he wrote, ‘Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content … I have learned the secret of facing … abundance and need. I can do all things (i.e. all that I am called to do) through him who strengthens me’ (Phil 4:11-13). The open secret to which Paul alludes here is fully spelled out in Hebrews 13:5 ‘Put greed out of your lives and be content with whatever you have; God himself has said : I will not fail you or desert you, and so we can say with confidence: With the Lord to help me , I fear nothing: what can man do to me?’. To realize the promised presence of one’s loving Lord, who both orders one’s circumstances and gives strength to cope with them, is the final secret of contentment.

We are all, of course, creatures of desire. God made us so. But desire that is sinfully disordered needs redirecting, so that we stop coveting others’ goods and long instead for their good, and God’s glory with and through it. When Thomas Chalmers spoke of ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’, he was thinking of the way in which knowledge of my Saviour’s love diverts me from the barren ways of covetous self-service, to put God first, others second, and self-gratification last in my concerns. How much do we know in experience of this divine transforming power? It is here that the final antidote to covetousness is found” (J.I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, p104, 105).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be content in Christ.

BE CONTENT

“You shall not covet… anything that belongs to your neighbour”.

Ex 20:17 NIV

“Put positively, ‘You shall not covet anything that is your neighbour’s’ is a call to contentment with one’s lot. The contentment that the tenth commandment prescribes is the supreme safeguard against temptations to break commandments five to nine. The discontented person, whose inner itch makes him self-absorbed, sees other people as tools to use in order to feed his greed, but the contented person is as free as others are not to concentrate on treating his neighbour rightly. ‘There is great gain in godliness with contentment’, wrote Paul (1 Tim 6:6).

The Bible presents contentment as a spiritual secret. It is one dimension of happiness, which is itself the fruit of a relationship with Christ. Knowing the love of Christ is the one and only source from which true contentment ever flows.

Jesus diagnosed, however, one mortal enemy to contentment: worry (see Matt 6:25-34). But, he said, for a child of God (and every Christian is that) worry, which is in any case useless, since it can improve nothing is quite unnecessary. Why? Because ‘your heavenly Father knows’ your needs and can be relied on to supply them as you ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’. Not to see this, and to lose one’s contentment in consequence shows ‘little faith’. The God whose fatherhood is perfect can be trusted absolutely to care for us on a day-to-day basis. So to realize that while planning is a duty and worry is a sin, because God is in charge, and to face all circumstances with an attitude of ‘praise God anyway’ is a second secret of the contented life” (J.I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, p102, 3, 4).

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, let me always trust in you and thank you for everything.

DON’T COVET

“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maid servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour”.

Ex 20:17 NIV

The word covet is not used much in our society. It is one of those old-fashioned biblical words that has fallen into disuse. But the action or sentiment that the word denotes is as common as ever. Perhaps a more common word would be “desire” which is the word the Good News Bible uses to translate “covet”. It means “want” only more so, want intensely to the point where the want be- comes something of an obsession.

“The word for ‘covet’ conveys the thought of seeking dishonest and dishonourable gain. Coveting appears as first cousin to envy: you see what someone else has, and you want to grab it for yourself… Paul calls coveting ‘idolatry’ because the things coveted become your god, controlling your life.

Coveting is a root of much social evil; desires that burst the bounds beget actions to match. David took Bathsheba (thus, by theft, breaking the eighth commandment) and got her pregnant (thus breaking the seventh) and then to avoid scandal arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed (thus breaking the sixth), and it all began with David coveting his neighbour’s wife, in breach of the tenth” (J. I. Packer, Keeping the Ten Commandments, p101).

Covetousness comes (usually) from wanting things. Your life doesn’t consist of things if your values are determined by your faith in God and your love for Jesus Christ. The tenth commandment puts things in perspective and says, “Don’t set your heart on things you can’t have. Be content with what you have and don’t envy others their possessions”.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, keep me from hankering after other people’s things.