Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-21; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14
When we read the Bible, and we do a sort of an overview, there come to be several themes, if you will, that are woven throughout the entire Scriptures, from the first verse to Genesis to the last verse of Revelation. One of those, of course, is the grace of God and the love of God. A second one that is woven through there is the supremacy or sovereignty of God over all things.
But there's another one, in particular when dealing with His own people, that God emphasizes throughout the Scriptures. That is the need for us to put God first. This is something that you have heard from me many times, and I don't think I'm beating a dead horse when I say it, because it wouldn't be so prominent in Scripture if it weren't so important. And it's one of the easiest things for us to forget in the moment, our need to place God first.
So as we briefly look at all three passages today – we're not going to focus, as we usually do, on one passage, going through it verse by verse – I want to us to consider the ways in which God tells us to place Him first.
Now it seems pretty obvious in the passage from Exodus. We have the Ten Commandments. As the liturgist noted, they are set up so that they teach us how to be in relationship with God and how to be in relationship with each other. In fact, they are split – and many of you know this – in terms of four and six. There are four that deal with God, and those are the first four, and that is very appropriate. Then there are the remaining six, which tell us how to be in relationship with each other, from God's perspective.
Jesus himself emphasized this. When asked what the greatest commandment is, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,” which they knew, because that's the first four commandments sort of all summed up: placing no other gods before Him, making no graven images, not misusing His name, keeping the Sabbath day holy and worshiping Him.
Then Jesus goes on and says, “And the second is like it.” Now they had only asked for one, but Jesus gave two. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And that encapsulates the second part of the Ten Commandments, the remaining six, as he says to follow the law that God has set, in order to treat people the way that God has told us to, but also the way that you would want to be treated. You don't want people to murder you or steal from you or lie about you or covet your stuff. (Well, maybe sometimes – you have to wonder sometimes, when people show off their stuff.)
But the first four commandments are much more important than the second set. If you don't know how to love God properly, if you don't put God properly into perspective, then you cannot love other people in the proper way.
Why would I say that? Because if you don't love God in the way that He says, which is to put Him first, to make no idols and things like that, you are either wrapped up in yourself, or you are wrapped up in whatever you have made your idol – your addiction, etc. – and it stunts your ability and skews your perspective on being able to see people for who they are.
They become tools. They become objects. Even those that you call friends are not as important to you as whatever it is that you're holding most dear. Only as we put God first, as it tells us in the Commandments, and then express that love of God to others, can they experience the our love for them in a healthy way. So God needs to be first.
Four hundred years later, in Psalm 19, David points out the same thing. He brings out two points which are critical in the two sections of this psalm. It's interesting, in a way, that this psalm is also split in two. First, God is the Creator, and creation recognizes it, even if we do not. (And David notes that we would recognize it, if we just looked around.)
God is greater than the sun and the moon. He is greater than everything He has created. As it says in this psalm, all things tell of the glory of God, even, as the liturgist said, without voice. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed science so much. Some people seem to see this disparity between science and faith, and certainly the world has tried to set it up so that they are separate, and they can make science a god and throw out God.
But I always saw science and faith as complementing one another. In science, as we come to understand more about the world, we come to see just how amazing our Creator is. And as we see and to begin to understand just how much more is beyond what we know, even with the determination to understand it more as we progress, it just gives us a greater understanding of what God did, and who God is.
The six ways of understanding the Word of God, in verses 7 through 9 in the psalm, give us perspectives on God's Word, and tell us how important it is. The law, which is perfect, and it revives the soul. That means it gives life. The law is supposed to give life.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy. Statutes is another way of saying laws, I think. I'm not a lawyer, but I think so. They make wise the simple, so they are useful for understanding your experiences and going through everyday life.
The precepts of the Lord – that means the rules that He has set – are right, and they give joy to the heart. When you are following those precepts, then it brings joy in your life, because you have a solid way to go, you have security, you have an understanding of your purpose.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The eyes were frequently called windows of the soul. So the commands of the Lord, when He says, “Do this,” are supposed to give light to your soul. Understanding. Vision. A way of seeing the world.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure, and altogether righteous. Ordinances are things that He tells us to do. They're like commands, but they're not so overarching. These are more direct. These are very specific, in many ways.
And they are “more precious than gold, much pure gold, sweeter than honey, honey from the comb.” The Word of God is more precious than anything in creation that we considered precious, from fine metals to fine food.
Now admittedly, we can go to the store and get honey, and we have people that have apiaries and raise bees. But honey is not a staple part of most people's diet. It's something that is a treat, something that is added on. It's special. In the days of the psalmist, and even in Jesus' day, it was rare. You had to find it, you had to brave the bees, and then you had to extract it. It wasn't easy. Beeswax candles were exceptionally expensive. Most of the time they used animal fat and solidified it for their candles.
Of course gold has always been considered precious. It's still considered one of the safest forms of wealth, even today. When people are afraid of the economy going completely south, you hear “Buy gold! Buy gold!” because it will never lose its value. God is more precious than that. He created it.
According to the psalmist, we want a relationship so close to God that we can be blameless and ask Him to search us, that we can ask Him that what we say and think might be acceptable. Why? Because His opinion is what matters. God needs to be first.
It doesn't mean that you shouldn't listen to what the opinions of other people are, but the one that you should hold as most important, as crucial, as critical, the one that matters, is God's opinion. And we know what He's going to think of what we say and do, because He's given us His commandments, His precepts, His laws, His statutes.
Then another thousand years or so later, Paul, in Philippians, takes us another turn, and he says there's something that's even more important than what was described in Exodus and what was described by David, in terms of the Word of God.
Paul does it by pointing out, in the beginning of the passage, that he has all the reasons for earthly pride that you could have. I'm not going to go through them, because of time constraints, but I would note that we shouldn't sell it short. The things that he says are worthy of praise. He has every earthly reason to be proud. This is what makes the impact of what he says next so great.
During Paul's encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road and and shortly, after he realized how futile his good works were, and how fleeting were his sources of earthly pride, like pedigree, education, and like fulfilling the law in a faultless manner. He came to understand that we're saved, not by our works or anything earthly, but by God's grace, through faith.
Now in that wonderful transaction that took place when Paul became a Christian, he lost some things, but he gained more than he lost. Let's look quickly at some of the things that he lost. He says in verse 7, “Whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” He had to give up depending on whatever he trusted in to improve his standing with God, whether that be his knowledge as a scholar, his bloodline as a Hebrew among Hebrews, or his religious achievements, being a Pharisee.
All those things were valuable to Paul, and he could and did profit from them. But he evaluated those treasures against what Jesus Christ had to offer, and he realized that all he held dear was nothing more then refuse, or as I've noted before, the word translated “refuse” actually means something far nastier. We'll say “dung.”
Paul's treasures had brought him personal earthly glory, but they did not bring him glory and standing before God. Therefore Paul counted those old things as a loss, and he gave them up. His old profession, his old position, his old worldview, his old associates. Those were secondary, compared to knowing Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.
Christ had to be the priority. And that's OK, because that follows right along with everything else the Bible says, because Christ was God. Christ was God's co-creator, as it says in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and everything was made through him, nothing was made without him.” He was the embodiment of the Word. Again, from that passage in John 1: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus himself noted, “I and the Father are one.”
So when Paul gave up those things and put Jesus first, he gained something. He gained a knowledge of Christ. And note that he says “the greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” in verse 8. He didn't say knowing about Jesus. He said knowing Jesus. A personal relationship. A personal understanding.
True, as you deepen your relationship with someone, you do get to know more about them. Heck, they made a whole game show about that, called the Newlywed Game. Along those lines, Pauline and I once played a game at our time share in Pennsylvania, called the Oldie-wed Game, seeing who knew most about their spouse, after so many years, and they had many questions, like the Newlywed Game.
The knowing means much more than knowledge about Christ though, because surely Paul had knowledge about Jesus before his conversion. He been persecuting the followers of Jesus, so he had to know about Jesus and His claims.
The “surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus” meant to have that personal relationship through faith. And I would note that the most intimate expression of human relationship is conveyed, throughout Scripture, by the word “know.” When the Bible says Adam knew Eve, that wasn't talking about just a handshake. That was talking about intimacy, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually.
Did you know that the feared Soviet leader Khrushchev knew a lot about Jesus and the Bible? As a boy, he actually won prizes at the church that he went to, because of his remarkable ability to quote Scripture. Yet anyone familiar with his life and leadership in the Soviet system knows that Khrushchev did not believe nor did he follow the very words he could quote. So it's one thing to know the facts about Jesus. It's another thing to truly know Jesus.
And how do we come to know Christ in the way that Paul described? By putting our trust in Christ, every day, in practical ways. I don't know who said it, but I found a catch-phrase in a couple of different sermons, so it must have come from somewhere: “More knowledge of God is gained from one inch of obedience to God's will than can be gained from acres of argument about God.”
Let me say that one again. “More knowledge of God is gained from one inch of obedience to God's will than can be gained from acres of argument about God.” Truly knowing God is a wonderful blessing, but it only comes true faithful practice.
The second thing Paul gained was righteousness. We have discussed, in our Bible studies, different types of righteousness, and it's something that I would encourage you to look up, with those books. Now Paul gave up the righteousness that he himself could create, and took on Christ's righteousness. The theological term for that is imputation. There's your $2 seminary word for today. What a fantastic experience of God's grace is the transfer of righteousness of Christ into the accounts of those who believe in Jesus and dedicate their lives to him.
Third, Paul said he gained fellowship of Christ. In Christ he gained this Friend. Lover. Brother. He became family. When Paul became a Christian it was not the end, but just the beginning, of a wonderful fellowship with Christ. And of course fellowship requires us to be in a personal relationship with somebody.
If you don't have the personal relationship, as we've discovered with COVID-19 and all the separation we've had to do, it is hard to maintain, much harder to maintain. You need that constant contact. You need that support.
Sometimes that fellowship can be painful. Paul expressed a desire to share in the sufferings of Christ. Last week I even mentioned that Jesus had said, “Everyone who follows me must take up their cross” and to follow him, and it didn't mean something that we just shoulder. It meant going to your death. It meant death of self, in order to lift up Christ.
You see, we have to have Christ first. And that fellowship has a purposeful experience. That's why he said, “I want to know the power of the resurrection.” The purpose of that fellowship is that we might better tell other people about Christ.
So what we have here is this weaving throughout the Bible of first God giving direct commandments, then in David's time, talking about the law of the Lord and the precepts and the Word of God and how important it is, and then seeing, in the New Testament, with the new covenant, that Jesus, the embodiment, the Living Word of God, is the thing that we should be holding most high. God first.
When we do that, it sets everything else into order, into perspective. That's important for us. We're going to have Communion here in a couple of minutes. When we do that, we remember and reenact what Jesus did the night before he died. But that was just a precursor, a foretelling, of what it was about to happen, which was that his body was broken for us. His blood was shed for us. This is how much he loved us.
If we keep Christ first, then that puts that perspective. That's not a source of guilt and shame, but a source of joy and victory, as we know that we're loved with an everlasting love, as we know that we are assured a place in heaven, not by our own faltering attempts, but by the power and righteousness of Christ.
I don't know about you, but for me at least, that's a reason to celebrate. That excites me. That's why I'm so glad we're going to have Communion again, after so many months when we didn't because of COVID-19. I don't care how late it might put us, in terms of the the service. We want to do it properly, even as was described in the responsive reading we had today from 1 Corinthians 11. We do it with a right attitude and a right understanding, that God is first, and that's a source of joy.
May you know Christ, and may He be first in your life and all that you do.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.