The Primacy of the God of Israel

“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” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7, NASB). 

For many people in our modern society, the Ten Commandments seem distant and for another era. We acknowledge that they are foundational to our system of laws in America, but they don’t seem to have any bearing upon our daily lives any more. The Culture War in which we are currently embroiled has made the display of them a point of contention with conservatives fighting to preserve them and progressives wanting them to be removed. Sadly, however, many conservatives want them to remain only because they have a place in our history. They are less concerned about their having a place in our hearts. As a society we wantonly violate them — even if we acknowledge their historical importance.

The first Commandment tells us that it is our responsibility to hold the God of Israel FIRST in our lives. No god is to have a higher value to us. Yet, for much of American society, there are many things that we value more than the God of Israel.

One of our gods is success. We prize success so much that we will sacrifice truth before it. We justify “bending” the truth even if we don’t break it, but David told us that the man of integrity, the man who is true to the God of Israel, will “swear to his own hurt and not change” (Ps. 15:4) Success comes in many forms — popularity, power, influence. It’s not by accident that so many vie to be the “American Idol” with all of the popularity, material prosperity, and influence it accords. Success is even more important than the God of Israel in the contemporary church. It is more important today to appear successful than it is to be faithful to the revealed Truth of Scripture.

Another god of America is ease. As long as it is easy, we will follow Jesus, but when following Him is uncomfortable, many fall away. This was Jesus’ point in Mark 4:5-6 and 16-17 in the Parable of the Soils (some call it “The Parable of the Sower”). When the seed is planted in rocky soil, the heat of the sun burns up the plant because the root has no depth. The heat of the sun is illustrative of the affliction that ALWAYS comes to believers in Jesus.

Another soil is the thorny soil of our god of pleasure. It is closely related to the god of ease. Hedonism has invaded the church in subtle ways. For many today, ministry is no different than entertainment. We switch churches as readily as we switch channels on our TVs. Paul spoke of the coming time when men would choose a church because the teaching “tickled” the ears (2 Tim 4:3) instead of being true. What Paul saw as a future expectation is now a present reality.

Relationships, for many, are more valued than the God of Israel. Jesus Himself told us that no one is worthy of being His disciple if he is not willing to put Him before family (Matt 19:29, et.al.). Some parents of unbelieving children stay home from worship when the kids are visiting rather than declaring their allegiance to the Lord over their children. How many, in defiance of the clear commands of Scripture, marry unbelievers thinking that they “can’t live without him/her”? Invariably, that relationship draws the believer away from the Lord rather than drawing the unbeliever to Him. This idolatry is not just true of young people and parents. Some preachers fear offending certain people in their congregations more than they fear offending the God of Israel by compromising the revealed truth of Scripture.

When my children were small we had a big back yard surrounded by a privacy fence that kept them in and danger out. The Ten Commandments function in that same way for our society. There is great freedom within their boundaries, but much danger when they are torn down. Admittedly, when my children were small, they knew they needed parental permission to venture outside the boundaries of the fence. We moved from that home before they challenged that expectation. But in this society the Church has failed to stand against the challenge to these boundaries. Perhaps that failure is because we are not sure we believe it ourselves. Whatever the reason, we need to repent and return Him to His proper place — first in our lives. 

Too High of a Price

“You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples” (Psalm 44:12-14, ESV).

Jim Elliot was martyred for Christ on January 8, 1956 as he and four other missionaries in Ecuador were attempting to make contact with a warlike, stone-age tribe of Indians known as the Aucas. The story of their martyrdom is told in a book written by Elliot’s wife, Elizabeth (Betty), called Through Gates of Splendor. It is a classic that should be read by every earnest believer in Christ.

Betty Elliot also wrote about her husband’s inner spiritual life, gleaned largely through Jim’s journals. That book is called Shadow of the Almighty and is also a worthy read. At some point while he was a student at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, Elliot wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

At the time, this martyrdom made the national news here in the United States. The reporters assigned to this story (and even some church leaders) considered the deaths of the five missionaries to be a tragic waste of life. Human nature being what it is, there is no doubt that the wives and loved ones went through periods of grief, wondering about the high cost of reaching a tribe of a few hundred obscure Indians hidden in the jungles of Ecuador. It may surprise many to realize that the Psalmist felt a similar emotion in Psalm 44.

Those who question the martyrdom of these five men — including the church leaders — display a lack of understanding of the worth of the human soul. If men, made in the image of God, were worth redeeming at the cost of God’s own Son, what sacrifice is too much for even the most obscure people group on earth? Their grief, notwithstanding, the loved ones of these men understood this. But do we?

I have known many men who have left ministry because the cost was just too great. The headaches and heartaches of ministry just aren’t worth the relatively low pay, the constant stress, and the scorn of family and friends. Conflicts within the congregation take their toll on ministers’ marriages and children. It would be different if the Lord would demonstrate radically transformed lives as a result of our work, but that is not often the case — here or overseas. We often labor in obscurity, not seeing many results. For many who have left ministry, God has demanded too high of a price of them. In the words of the Psalmist, “[He] has sold [His] people for a trifle…”

Many people who consider themselves to be Christians have left the Church because the cost of being among God’s people (those to whom Jesus is committed) is too great. Humility and contrition are too high of a price to pay. The souls of pagan neighbors or coworkers or family members are just not worth the pain of not getting our way in a church decision. Certainly there are times when a principled stand must be taken in today’s Church, but are we really willing to stand before Jesus for something as trivial as the color of the carpet or which version of the Bible we prefer to read? We don’t want to be “a laughingstock among the peoples.”

Does God really require sacrifice from me? Does He really expect me to humble myself before someone with whom I have had a conflict so that — MAYBE — men might know Him? The wives of the five martyrs would say, “Yes.”

Like Christ in His Sufferings

“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10, ESV).

“O to be like Thee…” is the cry of an old hymn that is seldom sung any more. Yet it reflects the idea that the goal of the Christian life is “Christlikeness,” being like Jesus. Paul spoke of the intense longing he had that Christ “should be formed” in the Galatian believers (Gal. 4:19). The formation of Christ in the believer was so important to him that he likened this intense longing to childbirth. In Romans 8 Paul told his readers that God’s plan from the very beginning was that His people would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (29).

The old hymn (and most popular opinion) would have us believe that Christlikeness in the Christian makes us “full of compassion, loving, forgiving, tender and kind.” If we have been conformed to His image we are active in “helping the helpless, cheering the fainting, seeking the wandering sinner to find.”

Now I hope my readers understand that I agree with the sentiments of this great old hymn, but there is another side to Christlikeness that Thomas Chisholm doesn’t overtly address in his hymn — the sharing in His sufferings. Alongside compassion and forgiveness, Paul also rejoiced that he could suffer as Christ suffered (Phil 3:10), that he could “fill up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). It’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ sufferings lacked anything, but Paul seems clear that there is a certain amount of suffering that His followers would experience in this life.

Often when we think of Christ’s sufferings, we focus upon the “Passion Week” those six intense days that culminated in the physical pain of His crucifixion. But the Old Testament gives us some indication that there were other times when Messiah suffered mistreatment and misunderstanding, and that He felt these sufferings keenly. Several of the Psalms are recognized as Messianic Psalms and give us hints into the emotions our Lord experienced.

The disciples recognized the Messiah’s zeal for the house of God when He drove out the moneychangers (John 2:17). This reference comes from Psalm 69:9 and the succeeding phrases and verses describe the anguish of our Lord as He bore “the reproaches of those who reproach [God].” He “wept”; He “made sackcloth [His] clothing, [He] became a byword to them” and was “the talk of those who sit in the gate.”

I find it very comforting to see the expressions of how Messiah felt when His prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears (see Ps. 69:19-20, 29). The Father’s ears were not deaf, as we all know, but Messiah felt that they were, at least for a time — just as I do sometimes.

The Scripture speaks of the ebb and flow of life between suffering and comfort. Peter reminds us that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). Suffering is not permanent, even if it seems like it for a while. But it is a necessary component of being like Jesus.