The Real Breakthrough

How come we need Jesus Christ to be strong and ready to live?

The answer is partly because of the battle that’s going on. We’re living in God’s world, but there’s an undercurrent that says you can stay in charge by assuming people and the environment are all there is.

I’ve shown what can happen when we think we’re only dealing with what we can see. Life can become a cycle of blame shifting and discontent. The anger we see and feel gets out of control.

In fact, our problem is Satan—because he’s messed with us relating to God.

It’s Jesus who makes the real breakthrough.  

So, let’s look at how he—in this world—goes about being the one who is strong. We need to know this, and know him, if we are going to trust him with our life.

We may have the impression that Jesus is always being ’nice’ to people, but if you read the story of his life—the four Gospels—it’s clear that he’s not just someone who responds to need. He takes the initiative to make sure we deal with life’s real issues—not just circumstances.

Jesus doesn’t begin with us! His first job is to go to a desert, alone, and there wrestle with Satan—for over a month (Luke 4:1).

In the place where the first man—Adam—gets everything wrong, this second Man gets it right. He knows the real enemy. And he knows that his only defence against Satan’s cunning is what God says. He sends his enemy off unheeded! And he begins his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:13-14). Notice, he is strong—in his Father God.

He continues by showing he is stronger than the devil (Matthew 12:28-29). He isn’t just healing people. He is pushing back against the inroads of the devil.

When it comes time for Jesus to die, he says, ‘Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out’ (John 12:31). Notice, he’s called Satan this world’s prince. Drifting along with the world isn’t all it seems! There’s unseen powers behind what we are experiencing.

Jesus says his death will throw Satan down—unable to achieve his goals anymore (John 14:30). And as he dies, he says, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30).

But now we come to why we can be ‘strong in the Lord’.

God raises Jesus—our Saviour—from death. He does this to demonstrate his great power, not just in Jesus, but for us (1:18-23).

Our collaboration with the enemy, our sharing of his rebellion and God’s judgement on it, have all been worn by a loving Saviour. We have forgiveness through his blood. And God raises him from the dead to show that this rebellion doesn’t have a future!

Satan no longer has us on his team. By trusting Christ, you can be strong and ready to live.

Now, anger with one another doesn’t need to rule us. We will deal with antagonisms, but they won’t be the main game. Rather, we will wrestle against ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’—in the space God has created for us to relate to him. ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you’ (James 4:7). There lots of ways this happens and Paul is going to show us how to ‘take up’ and ‘put on’ this strength of Jesus Christ.

The real world (revised)

If you’re a Christian, you’ll know that life is not just drifting. There are things to know, decisions to make and battles to fight. In the life we have been given, we will need to be strong.

Paul writes about this at the end of his letter to the Ephesians (6:10-18). He has described God bringing us to himself, sending his Son to make it happen, and told us how we are to live. Now, we need to take up the strength he will give us through Jesus Christ.

And he says we will need to stand in an ‘evil day’. There’s a battle on—something particularly difficult and threatening.

When anything goes wrong, our immediate instinct is to blame someone, protect ourselves or attack someone. But if we do this, we are not seeing what’s really going on.

In the real world—as God reveals it to us, our battle is not with people we can see. It’s against ‘powers of this dark world’—headed up by the devil or Satan. And although they are powers of this world, they are operating in ‘the heavenly realms’.

We need to know this space well, because it is where our struggles are happening.

It sounds strange to hear of evil in heavenly places! But it will help if we notice the other things that are happening in this area.

It’s here God blesses us with the full blessing of being in Christ. It’s here we find out we are chosen, called sons and daughters of God, forgiven through Christ’s death, and told many things about the future we will share (1:3-10). It’s the space where we know and relate to him.

Then, it’s the place where Christ is reigning—seated beside God (1:20). In other words, Christ is totally in control of the place where we relate to God. We should be enormously grateful for this.

But there’s more. We have been raised up from our spiritual death to sit with Christ in God’s presence—in ‘heavenly places’ (2:6).  It’s the space where we enjoy his friendship.

But then, this space is also where God displays the greatness of his work in us for others to see—the rulers and authorities in heavenly places (3:10). Who are these other creatures inhabiting the space we share with God?

Our passage now makes this clear. They are ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (6:12).

So ‘heavenly places’ is not heaven. Satan can’t be there. And we are not in heaven yet. But we are in these heavenly realms and so is Satan. In other words, he and his hordes come to mess with our relationship with God.

It turns out that ‘the heavenlies’ are the arena we are living in now! It’s the way things are. The real battle in life is about relating to God. If you are ignoring ‘the heavenlies’ you’re not dealing with your God, or with your real enemy. You’re not really ready to live.

Having to battle in this space is how things have been from the beginning.

God puts Adam and Eve in his Garden of Eden—the space in which they can relate to him. Everything is wonderful and there is unfettered companionship between God and his creatures. Satan enters this space. He sows doubt about who God is. He suggests to Eve and Adam that they should decide things for themselves.

In very short time, he has moved them over to his side (Genesis 3:1-6). They eat the forbidden fruit and immediately are ashamed. Satan has others with him now who are experiencing God as an enemy rather than as a friend.

Our first ‘parents’ got us all involved in Satan’s plan. That’s the battle that’s going on.

If you think this is just something ‘spiritual’—in the sense of being unreal—think again. The battle is being worked out in a very domestic way.

In Eden, Adam and Eve immediately start blaming others. They don’t deal with the real problem. They start fighting each other. And it goes on. Their oldest boy kills his younger brother.

Notice, they have given opportunity to the devil by not accepting that their enemy is Satan. The blame game goes on amongst us humans and the devil gets free points!

Everyone has this problem. The world tries to deal with its own community angers, but, all too often, it uses anger to try and resolve anger.

If there’s no one to resolve our dispute with God, our social battles become messy and complex. We are surrounded with hostilities and power plays. While we think the problems are merely human, and solvable, we are living in ‘fairy land’!

Paul has already given us some idea of how anger can play into Satan’s hands. He says, ‘be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil’ (4:26-27).

There are some things that ought to make us angry—enough to make us speak up, or act. But anger can take us over. It can move from being right, to being wrong—in a flash! Satan will have us being furious with each other while we don’t even admit he exists—and he’s laughing.

Given this is the battle we are in, Paul will tell us how to be strong in the Lord. We are going to need all of who he is and what he has done. We are going to need to take it up and to put it on. But more of this in the next articles.

Truth really matters

This series of articles all have to do with being ready to live, and ready to live in the real world. We’ve seen that this arena is not just the one we can see. There are ‘heavenly places’ where we relate to God and know his blessing. It’s a place where Christ reigns. And it’s also a place where Satan works with hateful constancy.

Paul says we need to be strong and stand our ground (Ephesians 6:10-13). And our first line of defence is truth.

An editorial in this morning’s paper claims that lies have become a way of public life in Australia. It says that much of what we hear is carefully crafted (it’s now a major industry), not to inform, but to exert power.

But lies are not the way to win in the real world we are in. We need truth!

Notice that it’s not a truth that originates from us. Paul uses imagery that shows we pick it up and put it on. What is this truth? Paul doesn’t leave us guessing.

Truth is Jesus himself (4:20-21). He’s come to our world and said what is true. But he’s also lived it. His goodness is real. And his love is real. And it has encompassed us, and saved us. Where truth is concerned, we have to start with him.

It would be worthwhile reading one of the Gospels through, and ask if this man Jesus is true. Paul is saying, we’ve heard about him, we’re surrounded by him—heard him speak in a way. In this way, we’ve discovered that the truth is in Jesus.

Our Lord towers over the make-believe, the ideologies, the excuses and straight out lies that make up so much of what we see and hear around us. Many have given up believing there is such a thing as ‘truth’. So, there’s nothing that can tie us together as a community. Nothing that can lift us out of the world we’ve imagined.

Compare this with Jesus. He challenges people to prove him to be false—a bold public claim. And he calls the devil the father of liars (John 8:44-47). He tells Pilate, in court, that he has come into the world to reveal the truth and that everyone who is true will come to him (John 18:37).

In the process, Jesus exposes us all as sinners, but he loves us and brings us to God. That’s not only the truth of Christ. It’s now the truth about us as well (John 3:20-21).

The Lord knows we don’t have the ‘stomach’ for this battle—in this case, the battle to live truly. Prophecies have told us how God clothes himself in righteousness (a breastplate) and salvation (a helmet), and deals with the godlessness himself (Isaiah 59:16-20). He intervenes.

In fact, the Lord comes to us as our King, wearing righteousness as a belt and faithfulness (or truth) around his waist (Isaiah 11:1-5). In other words, God must take up the fight or we are lost. And he sends Jesus to do the job, wearing righteousness and truth.

It’s ‘no secret that this intervention is done by Jesus on his cross (see Isaiah 53:12). It’s here that he goes to war with Satan and disables the apparatus—the lies and the accusations—that Satan uses against us (Colossians 2:15).

So, here’s an end to our self-importance and self-justification. These are the things that stop us speaking the truth to each other. They make us unreal. They lead to conflict or withdrawal from meaningful relationships. But now, our inclination to massage the truth, to make it palatable to our ego, or to further our ambition, is gone.

We can acknowledge we are unworthy sinners whom God has loved and for whom Jesus has died. In the light of this, we can speak the truth to each other (4:15, 25). Because we’ve lost our need to be the one who is right, we can see and speak about things as they are.

We’re free to say we were wrong. We can enjoy what others are doing. We can disagree without ceasing to love. We can investigate something that is new. We are free—in the truth!

Our truth telling doesn’t need to be brutal—exposure for the sake of being factual. It comes from the perspective of Christ being Lord. It’s about what will build up another person, not what will tear them down (Colossians 4:5-6). It’s about what will heal a community, not what will serve a party interest.

It’s important to actually do this! Apart from Christ, our life is a lie, and Satan will use this to his own advantage. But if we receive Christ as our truth, and stand in him, and relate to others by him, Satan is foiled. And wonderfully, a community is born where people live for each other rather than for themselves.

We’re doing something real, in the real world—and something that’s eternal.

God knows what is good

God has given us, his people, 10 commandments to tell us how to live. They are given to Moses and to Israel first, but Jesus says he came to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). He has made this law universal so that it can speak to all of us and shape our communities. I’d like us to see how this happens.

We all need someone to tell us what to do. Many will dispute this, but then, we don’t seem to be able to avoid it. If it isn’t God telling us what is good, it’s someone else. We are surrounded with it all the time.

The difference between God’s commands and those we make for ourselves is that God’s commands arise from who he is—and he is good. Ours arise because we always trying to fix a problem—and we are not good. Again, this latter point is disputed, but the number of rules we have to make is increasing all the time, so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a problem, and that the problem is us.

God is not trying to fix a problem. He is telling us who he is, and, because he is our Creator, he is telling us what is good for us. Moses says, ‘Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time’ (Deuteronomy 4:40).

What God tells us to do is good in the sense that it works. It fits what we are and it enables us to live together in a way that benefits everybody. It’s not an ideology, a social construction invented by someone to solve a problem. It’s real, and really works.

It’s interesting to see where the ten commandments begin. They don’t start with, ‘You shall not…’ but with, ‘I am the Lord your God…’ (Exodus 20:2). His commands arise from him being in a relationship with us. He says to his people, ‘You belong to me and I belong to you.’

If we think that the way to have relationships is to get everyone doing ‘the right thing’—which means telling everyone what the ‘right things’ are—we wear people down and destroy real relationships.

Many children know what it is like having to perform in a certain way to secure the attention, approval or affection of their parents. But others have parents who have created a home where they know they belong. Their identity does not need to arise from how they perform but from belonging. They are beloved children. In that setting, they can hear what is required of them as something that will be in their interests to hear and do.

The same is true in a community. If we must conform to a certain set of rules to be heard or to have a place, we breed distrust, distain and social unrest. It doesn’t work—and it isn’t working.

God has made every human being in his image, so everyone has a place in it. It is because he is relating to us that he gives us his commands.

But God says more. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’. He calls this redeeming them—that is paying the price to release them from their slave-masters. Israel belongs to God, not only because he made them but because he has made it possible for them to obey him.

We must look some more at how this happens, but for now, we simply note that God’s commands are given to people who have been released from the pressure of false gods—that is, anything that’s taken the place of God. They not only should obey him but they can, and even want to.

This has been the whole point of Jesus coming among us. He comes to save us. We get trapped by our own sins. We get caught by this world—and do what it wants rather than what God wants. This isn’t freedom. We have to do things.

But Jesus says ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:34-36).

If we know God is relating to us, that he has decided to love us, and that he is doing whatever is necessary to set us free from being trapped by what we have done, we will be able to receive his commands as his love reaching out to us.

So, commands might not be too bad after all! Certainly, those who realise God has made this world as a home for us, and who see what he has done to free us from our false gods, will listen to them with interest, heed them with diligence and find that it is good to be told what to do.

No other God but the Lord

Here’s the first command the Lord gives to those he has saved from slavery. He starts with what we should love. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). The ‘before me’ means ‘in my presence’. The Lord is like a husband or wife who is jealous of any rival, so we must keep ourselves for the Lord.

Our Lord is God of the whole earth—its Creator! There is nowhere he is not present, nothing he doesn’t know and nothing too difficult for him. And given the power and the care he takes to set us free, there is nothing he won’t do to see that we are provided for. He doesn’t need supplementing with other gods.

This is stated negatively but its purpose is entirely positive. Moses restates it later: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4).

And Jesus says the same: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment’ (Matthew 22:37-38).

What does it look like if we have no other God than the Lord?

Simply, we know we are not God! This is a huge relief! Many of our personal and social problems arise because we don’t know God as our Father. But if he is, we know who we are and what we are here for. We are the Lord’s creatures, his children, his beloved, his servants.

We can trust the Lord to show us how to live. We can be part of the future God is creating—something wonderful and complete. Everything we do has great significance.

Then, if everything is going well, we know who to thank. If we are in all kinds of need, we know who to ask for help. If we’ve sinned, we can ask him for forgiveness. If we are confused, we know he will show us the way to go. If we are being attacked, we can entrust ourselves to him. If we’re always thinking about ourselves, we can ask him for love for others. The Lord, being God, can cover all bases!

On the other hand, what is it like to live under a ruler and in a community where other gods are in charge?

No-one needs to tell Israel this—it leads to slavery. The battle that has just happened between Pharaoh and Moses is really about who runs this world. Pharaoh gets his magicians to practice their ‘secret arts’, and Moses prays to the Lord (see for example Exodus 8:18-19; 9:29; 14:30-31). And in this contest, the Lord wins, and Israel is released.

All of us, like Israel, need to be released from the authority of other gods and the demands of those who worship them. This is why Paul says that Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’ (Galatians 1:4). The world makes out to be a wonderful place but, if the Lord isn’t our God, we make something in the creation into a god. And this eventually makes us its slave.

The apostle John tells us not to love the world—what it craves for and boasts about. It is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). Only the Lord truly cares about us! And only the Lord has the breadth of knowledge, authority, wisdom, strength, and especially love, to do the job.

The Lord has given himself to us fully. He has not even withheld from giving up his Son for us. And now, he calls for us to give ourselves wholly to him—with no other ‘god’ to back us up in case he fails.

We noticed before that the Lord uses a ‘shall not’ rather than a ‘you shall’.

Loving the Lord shouldn’t be any problem. Paul says he is ‘constrained’ by love because ‘one man died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). That should settle the matter. But it isn’t just like that. Sometimes, we need God to say ‘No!’ Our hearts are a factory for making idols—one after another.

If we have tasted that God is kind, and good, and that he has saved us, we will be grateful for this ‘No!’ Faced with a crisis, or an attraction, or a pressing need, some other ‘god’ may appear very attractive, natural and powerful. It seems impossible to see it any other way. But then, God’s command protects us, and directs us back to the love of God.

We have to ‘wait on the Lord’. That is, we have to suspend our craving, for long enough to see what God is about, and how he is going to prove to us that he is our God. You can check a story about this in Israel’s journeyings (Deuteronomy 8:2-6).

God has been wonderfully gracious to us in saving us from this world and its idols. But his kindness does not mean softness. The Lord’s kindness has brought us to himself. There is nothing more wonderful than this. And there is nothing that is more designed to makes us strong—to be who we are created to be. So, don’t entertain any other gods in the presence of our God and Father! Wait, and see, that the Lord is good.

No idol can be the Lord

The Lord’s doesn’t want us to have other gods. And of course, why would we want to? There’s only one Creator. And there’s only one who has loved us as sinners and set us free to be his people.

However, the matter of coming to the Lord can be tricky. Trusting in the Lord—alone—doesn’t come naturally. The next three commands spell out what it means to have him alone as God.

This second command talks about idols. ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol 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…’ (Exodus 20:4-5).

If the first command is about guarding our heart, this one is about guarding our hands because the Lord is speaking about something we make.

Worship may be tricky because we can’t see God and we like to deal with things we can see and handle and control. As one lady said to me, ‘I like to have God with skin on!’

But here, the Lord tells us not to put something in between him and us—something that represents him but isn’t him.

Israel has a problem with this. They have heard the Lord speak to them from Mount Sinai, but they would prefer just to hear from Moses. They can see him, argue with him, oppose him. On the other hand, when the Lord himself comes near, they can see fire and smoke and hear thunder. But there’s nothing they can get their hands on. They don’t like something so ‘out there’ and ask for it to stop (Exodus 20:18-21).

Then, when Moses returns to the mountain to get the ‘hard copy’ of the commandments, engraved in stone, they feel they are out in the wilderness with nobody to lead them. They want something tangible to trust. So, the Priest, Aaron, makes an image, a golden calf. The people dance around it, and say, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’ (Exodus 32:4). They break the second commandment—straight away.

So, do we need something visible so we can come to God? Moses says no: ‘… the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets’ (Deuteronomy 4:12-13). God is spirit. He can’t be pinned down to something we can make, or manage!

To worship the Lord truly, we need to be listening and responding to what he says. This is how he gives himself to us and how he gives us a way of coming to him.

Making an idol to represent or replace the Lord is a way of keeping the Lord at a distance. We are on the way to shaping God according to our image, instead of him forming us according to his image.

The Lord tells us he is ‘jealous’ about this. He will make sure we know him as he is and not as something less. Whatever we make is going to be less than the Lord, different to who the Lord is, and have no power or goodness or capacity to love. The Lord will not stand by and let us do that!

How does this work out now? Clearly, we have hands—and minds and skills and artistry—that we should use to worship the lord. Beautiful music, careful thinking, hard work and loving action are all part of our worship of the Lord. This is loving the Lord with all our heart and soul.

But what we do and make is a witness to the Lord, not the Lord. Only Jesus can be the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3). And we are being transformed into that image, but only because it is the Lord who is doing it (2 Corinthians 3:18).

We guard against false worship by hearing what the Lord is saying to us and by responding to him. We guard against false worship by making it our first duty each day to have our ‘soul happy in God’. (This was what George Muller’s decided.) If we don’t do this, what we do may become a replacement for a real relationship with the Lord.

What are you thinking about when you serve the Lord? Is it him? Or is it something you do for him—something you can understand and manage? It may be how well you are doing as a Christian. How we are living matters a lot, but it isn’t the Lord. It may be what you are responsible for at Church. That could be important, but it isn’t the Lord. It could be how well you know the Bible. That is important, but it isn’t the Lord. It might be the needs of others. This is important too, but it isn’t the Lord.

Your idol may be how you feel about God. If your feelings have been produced by the Lord, that would be true worship. But then, they may be something you are producing. That is an idol and the Lord would not want to be identified by anything you or I produce. He is jealous of who he is, and of how we are thinking about him.

We are great at making idols and dancing around them—just like Israel. And then we begin to argue about which idols are the most important!

So, what should true worship look like? Here’s a few pointers.

First, it will be real. A Samaritan lady asks Jesus if people should worship in Samaria or Jerusalem. He says, ‘…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipper must worship in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23-24). True worship is love—for the Lord.

Second, it will be eagerness to hear God’s word—and about Jesus Christ in particular. Jesus tells the Samaritan lady that the time for true worship has come because he has come. So true worship gathers around Jesus Christ—who is God’s Word. We will want to hear what God has done, what he has promised and how we may share in his salvation.

Third, it will be asking how we can build up others in faith, hope and love. God has made his church a witness to his presence—an actual house of God. Paul envisages that if we are together, hearing and loving God’s word, someone may recognise that the Lord is among us (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).

I began by saying that we need to guard our hands—that is, all the things we are capable of doing. If what we can do is our focus, it doesn’t represent the Lord any more. It has replaced him. The Lord is jealous. That is, he protects what he loves. He doesn’t want us playing make-believe!

Don’t misuse the Lord’s name

It’s a remarkable thing that the Lord has given us his ten commandments or law. As Christians, we are not under this law—that is, it doesn’t secure our relationship to him. Jesus Christ does that. But God is developing these things in us through his gospel (Romans 8:4). And many things can distract us so and the commandments help keep us on track.

The third command requires that we guard our tongue. ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’. The Lord’s name tells us who he is, so it’s important not to abuse it.

So, how should we use the Lord’s name? That will help us notice when we misuse it.

We can pray to the Lord by name. Moses is told the name Israel can use for God (Exodus 3:14-15; 6:3-7). Then, in this name, Moses leads God’s people to freedom (Exodus 15:1-3).

The same is true for us as Christians. God has revealed himself to us in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:4-5; 2 Corinthians 4:6). Then, the apostles announce that everyone who calls on his name will be saved (Acts 2:21, 38).

Jesus gives us the name to use when we pray—it’s ‘Father’ (Matthew 6:9). He sends his Spirit so our cry comes with all the certainty of being his sons and daughters (Galatians 4:6-7)). This is astonishing. We know the name of God, and can call on him to save us because we know who he is.

We can only be secure in this world if we have a great God. And it is a great kindness on God’s part to reveal himself in this way. A proverb says, ‘The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe’ (Proverbs 18:10).

So how could we misuse this name? The word actually means to treat it in an empty way.

We think that someone who uses ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ to impress or to swear is misusing his name. That is certainly an abuse of the Lord’s name. But this law is addressed to us who know him. It’s us who know the fullness of his name who are most likely to use it in an empty way.

What if we say the Lord is alive but act as though he didn’t exist? What if we pray to the Lord and don’t expect him to do us any good (James 1:6-8)? What if we tell friends we believe in the Lord, and then don’t demonstrate his goodness in our living (Romans 2:24; 1 Corinthians 6:5-6)? What if we sing songs in church but don’t actually love the Lord (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)? What if we say ‘Lord, Lord’—expecting him to hear our prayer—but don’t do what he says (Matthew 7:21).

What if we promise something ‘in God’s name’ (Deuteronomy 6:13), or introduce our promise with, ‘As surely as the Lord lives…’ (Jeremiah 4:2). The Lord expects that we will use his name in this way—as we shall see. But if we want to sound more confident than we are, or want to create a bigger impression than we deserve, or, just deceive people about our honesty, we have misused the Lord’s name (Isaiah 48:1).

This is such a big problem when Jesus comes that he teaches us not to swear in God’s name at all. We should just say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and mean it (Matthew 5:33-37). The formal use of swearing an oath in the Lord’s name is being so badly abused that he says it is beyond repairing.

James tells us what an unruly thing our tongue is (James 3:1-12). And we are not just talking about a ‘slip of the tongue’. Our talking is the spill-over of what is going on in our hearts (Matthew 12:34).

If, in any way, our hearts are not settled in the love of God, or our conscience at peace through Christ’s offering, we are very likely to ‘overspeak’. That is, our tongues will ‘run away with us’ and we’ll draw attention to ourselves and not to our Lord and Saviour. It is this that is at the heart of ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’.

However, the Lord is pleased for us to use his name to support our promises. Paul is an example (Romans 1:9; 9:1-2). The Lord’s faithfulness helps us be faithful. We know we have God watching to see if we mean what we say. This ‘checking up’ by God is good for us. We are not just dealing with people we may be able to deceive or impress. We are dealing with God.

Having a faithful God, and calling on him truly, does lead to a faithful life. Our passions are subdued, our fears are calmed, our egos are tamed. The Lord anticipates that we will become like him. People will be able to trust us. This helps a whole community to grow. We need everyone to mean what they say. Otherwise, people become cynical and loyalty begins to die.

And now, the Lord tells us he ‘won’t hold anyone guiltless’ if they break this command. The Lord values his name, even when we don’t, and he won’t overlook our empty talk (Matthew 12:36). If he doesn’t act, we live on in our self-deception, and his name is shamed in the world. If we get ‘full of ourselves’, the Lord may have to let us fail, and be humbled.

Given that our tongue is the hardest thing to control, how glad we are that our keeping of this command does not begin from yesterday’s mistakes but from the righteousness of Christ. It is this that gives full flow to our desire to please the Lord. We do not keep the commandments because we have to but because we want to.

So, let us love the name of the Lord. Let us call on his name. Let us proclaim the Lord’s name. And let us claim integrity in his name. But don’t ever think the name doesn’t mean anything!

Sharing God’s rest

Here’s another commandment given to Israel, but still a commandment to help us Christians keep on track. It’s longer than any of the others, which could suggest we will try to find ways to avoid what it says!

‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…’. He tells us there are six days for getting all our jobs done—for us and for everyone we are responsible for. Then, there’s a day of rest—which is what Sabbath means.

The Lord’s talking about time. When we’re busy, forgetting is easy! This may be why the command is, ‘Remember!’ It’s here to help us guard our time—so that we don’t entertain other gods in place of the Lord.

We can gather up what this command means under two headings.

First, we are creatures and not slaves

The Lord’s reason for requiring a Sabbath comes from the creation story. He shows what is important to him by resting on his last day of making everything. He doesn’t need a day off! It’s more a celebration of work completed. And he calls us to share this day with him—a holy day.

We need to know that the world we live in doesn’t just happen, or continue, by our ceaseless activity. God makes everything. We are not merely the result of time and chance. We are what God makes. Everything is for the Lord—that is, holy. And he wants us to share in the delight of that being so.

By stopping for this Sabbath, we acknowledge that the Lord makes things and looks after them and determines their purpose and progress. So, if worship doesn’t affect our time table, we’re missing out on something.

God not only calls his rest day holy. He blesses it. Everything else God blesses in creation is so something can be ‘fruitful and multiply’. So, if we have a sabbath, what will happen? We will have the pleasure of seeing that everything works because of God—not because of us.

One Psalm tells us about how risky this world seems to be—‘mountains fall into the heart of the sea’. But then he says how peaceful it is knowing who is in charge of it (Psalm 46). Then he says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. The word for ‘be still’ actually means, simply, ‘stop!’

Another Psalm tells us, ‘In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves’  (Psalm 127:2).

There’s a second reason we are given this command. Moses, later on, repeats the command and says, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ (Deuteronomy 5:15).

Slaves can’t plan their own time table. That’s why Israel had to leave Egypt and worship the Lord in the wilderness. Like them, we need to be delivered from this present evil world—it’s goals of self-sufficiency, self-sovereignty and self-determination. These things don’t set us free. They make us their slaves.

So, remembering to stop for long enough to acknowledge and enjoy that God is Creator, and Redeemer, is essential to true worship. It is also essential for human health and social well-being.

Second, Sabbath is a sign not a ceremony

God says the Sabbath is ‘a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so that you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy’ (Exodus 31:12; Ezekiel 20:12). They stop for a day, and God is able to show them that they belong to him.

But Sabbath also shows other nations that Israel belongs to the Lord. They are not slaves to the creation but belong to its Maker, and this affects everything.

But then, when Jesus comes, Sabbath keeping has fallen on bad times. Israel’s leaders have made it a time to signal how pious they are, not how good God is.

First, the Pharisees hate what Jesus does on a Sabbath. He is living in Sabbath rest—all the time. The Pharisees are ‘up tight’—all the time, and their Sabbath is only a ceremony.

Second, Sabbath points to something—to Christ who has come to give Sabbath rest. It takes more than just a day off to know that our life is made useful by God and not by us. Jesus will fulfill what Sabbath means.

Our Lord says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Only Jesus, making himself an offering for our sins, can give us rest from trying to be something by ourselves. Coming to him is the way we enter Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:10).

So how can Christians go about keeping the third commandment? First, we need Christ to take from us the ‘puff’ of making out we are good. We need him to be our Saviour. But then, we, like Israel, need a sign that we are the Lord’s workmanship—a time to know the Lord is God, and that we are not! It needs to affect our time table!

Paul notes that some people keep a special day and some don’t (Romans 14:5). Clearly, the sign is what is important, not the ceremony.

The first Christians start meeting together on the day Jesus rises from the dead. Gradually, this becomes the pattern (Acts 20:7). Sabbath, for us, is a day, or a time, to be with the Lord, to hear his word and to be with others who trust and love him. Hebrews warns us about missing out on getting together with others (Hebrews 10:25).

As the gospel crosses cultures, each Christian and each church must decide how to regulate their time to remember the Lord. It takes time to know that we are made for God—holy. It requires some stopping of our usual things to realise that God makes us fruitful. It takes time hear and know his word. It takes time to build others up in faith, hope and love.

Those who expect their Christian life to just happen—without heeding the third commandment—may find they drift, or become unfruitful. Or worse.

The Lord finishes his creation by resting. He shows Israel he is their Creator and Redeemer by commanding them to rest on their Sabbath. He sends Christ to make this rest actual and permanent. And then, by resting in the Lord now, we look forward to the day when the whole creation will be fully cleansed, developed and glorious, and ruled over by Christ and all his followers. It is the final Sabbath to which all creation is moving (Revelation 14:13).

Honour your parents

The fifth commandment begins the section of God’s law that tells us how to live with one another. ‘Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you’ (Exodus 20:12).

We remember that these commandments are not written for just anybody. They are given to the people the Lord has freed from slavery. God has every reason to expect that Israel will want to go on being free—and he is showing them the way.

It’s no surprise that this section begins with honouring parents. He is the Father of all the families of the earth (Ephesians 3:14). Israel knows this because he calls them his children (Exodus 4:23; also Deuteronomy 14:1-2). And Christians have lots more reason to know this.

Jesus is God’s Son and he fully reveals the Father (John 1:18). He brings forgiveness through his death, and then leads us to share with him in being sons and daughters of God—his family (Ephesians 2:17-18). Our earthly families are the way we get used to the idea that this world is created as a family affair.

What happens in families affects us deeply. This is where we get our idea of ‘normal’—what we can expect life to be and how to cope with that. It’s here we find out who we are, what we can do, who other people are and how we relate to them. It’s here we learn what to believe in, and why.

So, what parents do matters. But then, it also matters a lot how we respond to what our parents do.

Sometimes, parenting is done badly. And there is something wrong about every family! But bad parenting can’t be replaced with something that isn’t parenting. God, the Father, has made humanity to work this way. The need to honour parents is not because they deserve it but because we need to do it.

So, what does it looks like to honour our mother and father? The word means to ‘give weight to’ who they are. Clearly, this will vary as we grow.

The command is addressed to everyone, and perhaps primarily to adults. There is never a time when parents can be treated as ‘light-weight’. How we regard them and treat them is always shaping what we are. They are a constant witness to the fact that we are not self-made but dependent.

Being a child begins with having no choice—we lie where parents put us and eat what they put in our mouths!

But then, we have a will of our own and need to learn what to do with that! Do our parents need to know what we think, how we feel? Of course.  We are finding out how life works and this is part of it. But then, they have a bigger frame of reference than us. It’s important to defer to that.

Then our frame of reference grows. This is as it should be. No-one is meant to follow parents all their life. Rather, they have been bearing witness to an authority greater than their own—the Lord’s. That’s who they represent, whether they know it or not.

The time comes when we have to take responsibility for responding to that authority ourselves. Being an adult is not doing whatever we like. Rather, it’s understanding God’s word, and doing that. It’s good if parents understand this and help it happen gradually.

Some children have had to honour their parents by not doing what they have been taught. This is why Paul tells children to obey their parents ‘in the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:1). There is a higher authority.

Then, parents get old. Perhaps they need to be wheeled around! How we treat them now tells us a lot about how we regard the Lord. Paul tells us that if children don’t care for their parents they have denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:4-8). So, honour for parents is life-long.

This is the only command to which the Lord attaches a promise; ‘…so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.’ He adds an incentive to encourage us. This gives hope to all that happens in our families. It happens in two ways.

First, parents know their instruction doesn’t start with their own competence and goodness. When their children ask why they have to keep these rules, they must answer, ‘We were slaves…but the Lord brought us out…’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21).

We all need saving from slavery to this world. If parents know this, and share this with their children, it prevents instruction being dreary and legalistic.

Second, children know they have an inheritance, but staying in it is going to depend on honouring their parents and what they teach. They won’t just grow up. They will grow deeper and richer. It gives ‘weight’ not just to their parents but to them. They are significant.

On a very practical level, our parents may give us a good start to life by providing property, education and opportunity. But this ‘inheritance’ is not our security. We need personal qualities—self-knowledge, humility, determination, tolerance, kindness. We especially need a sense that life is not about ourselves. This is what we can learn by honouring parents.

Jesus makes an important statement about children. Parents are bringing their children to him for a blessing. When disciples think this is an intrusion, Jesus protests and welcomes them. His explanation is, ‘for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ And, ‘…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:14-15).

One way or another, we need to learn to be childlike. We come from parents. A lot of what we are is because of them. Similarly, there’s no self-made people in God’s kingdom! No proud people! No-one who says they don’t need to be taught!

The Lord showed me something new about being a son to my father when I was in my fifties. I was still learning to be vulnerable. I was able to tell him about things that were troubling me. And it was the best thing— liberating! It didn’t just change things between my father and me. It changed me.

God designed us to learn many things about being his sons and daughters through honouring our parents—as children, and as adults. If we don’t learn it here, we may learn it somewhere else, but then the consequences may be more severe and painful.

But then, honouring parents is being truly human. It’s letting God being our Father get worked out in ordinary life. No matter what our past has been, it will always be a liberating experience to look at them, to appreciate them, to find out what they have to give, and to serve them if that is what they need.

Don’t murder

The sixth commandment says simply: ‘Don’t kill’. The Lord is prohibiting killing that is malicious and intentional. Other laws given to Israel will cover accidental or judicial killing.

We may think this command is simple, understandable, and hardly necessary to talk about because it would never occur to us to kill someone. But each of God’s commands show he is not just interested in what we do but in what we would like to do. This raises different questions!

Murder has been with us from the beginning. The world’s first family has to deal with homicide when Cain kills his brother. Later on, Lamech will attack anyone who gets in his way (Genesis 4:23-24).

Then the earth becomes ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11), and God judges it with a flood. But God says we have no business killing each other because everyone is made in his image (Genesis 9:5-6).

What then lies behind murder? Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder…”. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). He urges us to be reconciled rather than to maintain our rage.

James says something similar. I’ll quote it as Peterson translates it in ‘The Message’. ‘Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? … They come about because you want your own way…. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it’ (James 4:1-3).

So, the command is requiring us to guard our anger, and so, to prevent murder. Here, of course, is something that affects us all.

Anger can take many forms. It might be verbal or physical. But then, it might be just withdrawal from real relationships. We think we are not doing any harm, but lack of love is powerful—just as love is.

Our anger may be about not being able to get something we really want or feel we deserve. Effectively, it’s a little god for which everything else must be sacrificed.

But there is a time and place to be angry. Just check the number of times the Bible tells us that God is angry. He is not content with the status quo when wrong is being done. People who abuse others need our attention. Those who neglect a responsibility deserve our anger.

But then, how does God get angry? His anger is very different to ours. We need to turn to Jesus who has revealed God to us. There are just a few examples to look at.

First, Jesus is among people who are critical of him healing someone on a Sabbath day. He looks at them ‘in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts’ (Mark 3:5). Notice the double description of his emotions—anger, and deep distress or grief.

On another occasion, he attends the funeral of a friend and is ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33, 38). Again, both words are important.

Actually, the first word here means he is outraged. The cause of his anger seems to be the distress and hopelessness that death creates for us in this world.

In a way, we all get angry with death—ours, or that of someone we love. Jesus is well out front of us here. He is not only angry. He is going to do something about it (Hebrews 2:14-15).

But in these examples, the anger of Jesus doesn’t stand alone. He is also ‘troubled’, or ‘distressed’. It is a kind of grief that things have got to this state.

On another occasion, Jesus clears the temple of animal traders using God’s space for their private enterprise (Luke 19:45). Clearly, he is angry. But just before this he weeps over the city because it refuses to recognise what will bring them peace (v. 41). Again, the anger of Jesus—and the anger of God—is linked with grief.

If Jesus is angry, it’s because we are preferring our littleness to his generosity. He is grieved that we are not living in the good of what he is doing for us. His grief is a kind of hope. He knows things can be different, and that one day they will be. He refuses to accept the status quo and doesn’t want us to either.

Without this revelation, people who want to protest often move straight to anger—without grief. It’s clear that we can’t cure the world’s problems with anger! Two lots of anger don’t make peace! They divide our communities and make it impossible to talk to one another. Murder happens!

We need to see that God is more offended by wrong than we are. His anger expresses his goodness, not his frustration. It comes with compassion, not distain. He can see that we don’t know him.

And it is because we don’t know God that frustration makes us angry. We don’t know his care for us or his purpose to have us share with him in healing the world. So, everything that goes wrong we take personally. Jesus has loved us, and died for us, to remove this awful sense of loss and replace it with the certainty that we are God’s children.

This is why James can talk about the wisdom that comes down from God and which is pure and peaceable (James 3:17). It is why he can say, ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’ (James 1:19-20).

Whatever the cause of our anger may be, this command is asking us to take control of it. By reacting, we may be part of the problem! And, as a result, the devil plays games with us. Paul says, ‘In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31).

So, don’t murder! That is, don’t even think about it! But even more, see how eager God is that we don’t die, but live—us, and everyone around us as well.