5—Made ready by Christ’s peace

We’re exploring how to live in what God calls the real world. It’s all about whether we will relate to God or not. But there’s opposition to this everywhere.

So now, if we are in this battle, how can an announcement of peace help us? It not only helps but is effective because Christ has won a great victory. He has won the right to announce the peace. And Paul says having this peace and this message gets us ready to fight our real enemy.

The letter of Ephesians tells us how this is so. Here’s three things that are clear.

First, we were far from God. But then, we are brought near to him, by Christ’s blood (2:13-18). An offering has been made for our sins. We have peace with God.

The world assumes God is an enemy to be hated, or a delusion to destroy. But if God reveals himself and tells us he has no more quarrel with us, that our sins are forgiven, our whole being can operate properly. We can think. We can sing. We can love.

It has been noted that atheists often have a personal rather than a logical reason for their belief. Something has happened, or not happened, and they blame God for it. But what if we see that God is not against us but for us? What if we discover we are loved? This is peace with God.

When Jesus rises from the dead, his first words are, ‘Peace be with you’. This was a common greeting at the time, but coming from Jesus, and after what has just happened, it is an announcement of peace between Jesus and his followers. And this means, an announcement of peace with God.

So, Jesus comes announcing peace and declaring good news of happiness (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15). He does this through the preaching of his gospel.

Second, there’s one way of reconciliation for everyone.

This is important to Paul because he has thought you have to be a Jew to know God. Then, he hears the church announcing peace with God without the trappings of Judaism. Jesus has entered his space and says there is room for people of all nations to live before him in peace.

This makes Paul desperately angry. He begins to fight against the enemy he can see—the church. But then, Jesus speaks to him as a friend. ‘You’re having a hard time Saul. Why are you fighting me?’ Paul has come to God with war in his heart. Jesus comes to Paul with an announcement of peace. (XXX; James 3).

Paul now knows the way to have peace with God. And he knows this is the way of peace for the world—Jews and Gentiles (2:13-14).

Jesus has not only resolved the conflict between us and God. He has resolved the reason for our conflicts with one another. He spells this out in some detail (2:15-22).

Jewish worship had pointed to Christ. But now that Christ has come, its purpose is completed and everyone must embrace the reality—Jesus is our peace with God.

So, Jews and Gentiles can come to God in the same way. The reason for Paul to defend his ‘territory’ is gone. Jews and Gentiles can be in the same family. God himself comes to live with his people.

Christ’s peace has removed the need to defend our cultural space. For Paul, it has been religion. But now, he can relate freely—travelling with Christ into all the places God takes him.

The same principle applies to all the other ‘territories’ we create for ourselves. Paul speaks about it in numbers of his letters. With Christ as our peace, we don’t need to make a warring party out of our social status, or our race or our gender (Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; 5:6; Colossians 3:10-11). If we belong to Christ, we belong together.

Perhaps you can see how urgently we need this peace of Christ—bringing us to God—in the midst of what we call issues today. He puts to rest the seeds of our discontent. He frees us to love without necessarily agreeing, and discuss without being spiteful. We learn this, even if with some difficulty, as we relate to our fellow Christians. But then, this gives us ways to relate to others as we move out into the world.

Third, this announcement of peace is the preparation we all need if we are to engage in the battle ahead.

Paul is astonished that he has been entrusted with such good news for the world. He is ready to go anywhere and do anything that will enable others to know it is true. He is ready to live!

This new way of peace—peace with God—confronts the unseen powers we are fighting against (3:8-10). It names and shames this whole hostility thing and says, ‘You don’t need to be angry!’ That is, not selfishly angry.

If you can’t see the real battle, you have to maintain the rage. And we do! And we are! Even in countries that have no political oppressor, we find one thing after another to fight about.

But what if we can announce Jesus Christ as God’s way of peace! Many will scorn it of course. But then, some will find that the wars they are conducting are not the main game. They will discover that the currents of God’s loving are more powerful and persuasive than all the puff of the world and its Prince.

Paul is telling us to wear this announcement of peace like shoes! We shouldn’t go anywhere without God’s peace in our hearts. We shouldn’t say anything that merely defends our territory. And we should never be ashamed of the blood of Jesus by which this precious peace has been announced to us. This is the peace we have needed. And it is the peace that is needed in the world.

With Jesus, we may say to those who persecute us, ‘It is hard for you to kick against the peace Christ has established!’

6—Faith foils fiery attacks

Trusting God for everything has a special place in being ready to live as a Christian. This is the only item in the Christian’s armour where Paul tells us what it is for—we can snuff out the fires Satan tries to light with a shield of faith (Eph. 6:16).

The shield Paul is referring to is large, made of wood, covered with leather and, if necessary, soaked in water. Arrows intended to start fires would be extinguished on impact. In other words, faith is very effective!

Being a Christian doesn’t remove us from our weaknesses. Satan can stir us up about something we’ve done. He can sow doubts about God’s goodness or make us feel silly about our faith. He can stir up fears about our future. He can lure us with a passion until it’s out of control. He can manage all of these things at the same time! He has lots of strategies and they come with force.

Important things are at risk. Satan likes to dull our minds to God’s presence. More importantly, he wants us to think God is not able or willing to step in and help. He wants us to think we are not important to God.

He wants us to move from trusting God to trusting what is seen. He wants us to join his world that only believes what it can see or describe, what it can measure and control.

We have to admit, trusting something we can’t see doesn’t come naturally. The unbelief of the world has a way of seeping into us. We forget the unseen world God is revealing.

But the big questions in life are: is God powerful? is he good? is he near? and does he love me? Faith says ‘Yes! And, by this, Satan is foiled.

Faith like this is something we do but not something we work up. It’s a proper response to the God who reveals himself. It is created in us by God’s word (Romans 10:17).

So, here’s what Paul tells us about faith in this letter of Ephesians.

First, faith is all about Jesus Christ (1:12-15; cf. 1 Pet. 1:21). He is the reason we believe.

Much of what Jesus does in his ministry on earth is to build up the faith levels of God’s people. Many kind and powerful acts demonstrate that God is alive and well and interested and capable to care for his people (Acts 10:37-43).

Four times Jesus tells his disciples to have faith, or more faith. They’re all worth reading!

Two of them are in life-threatening emergencies—at sea (Matt. 8:23-27; 14:23-32). Another is when the disciples see a miracle Jesus does to indicate the state and fate of Israel (Mark 11:20-25). Another is when Peter is told how badly he will behave (John 13:37—14:1). Imagine being told you are a failure, and then being told to believe in God and in Christ!

Everything God has done to bless us is done through Jesus (1:3-14). If we forget him and focus on ourselves, we lose the sense of our high calling as God’s holy, forgiven and beloved people. All the hard work of coming to God has been done by him.

Christ is called ‘the Beloved’. That’s what the Father calls his Son on two occasions (Mark 1:11; 9:7). And now we are accepted in him. We are loved too.

If we keep looking at him rather than ourselves, Satan can’t get anywhere. He can’t offer redemption when things go wrong. He can’t promise a future that’s worth having. He has nothing to offer! Not anything that’s permanent or satisfying or real! His fiery arrows fizzle.

Second, faith is certainly not about us. Having faith in Jesus Christ is a decision to make and an action to take. But it’s not something we do alone. We’re not saying, ‘Look at me!’ We’re saying, Look at him!’

We’ve had enough of trusting ourselves. It resulted in some nasty behaviour and states of mind. We deserved God’s anger and got mercy. We were dead and came alive to God. We were nobody and now sit with Christ next to God (2:1-10).

This is just the beginning! God has done all this so he can show us the full extent of his kindness in the world to come.

Those who forget this are in trouble. Those who think they deserve this are dreaming. But we who know he is gracious are counting on it.

Third, faith is coming to God, confidently (3:12). Paul tells us not to be discouraged by the difficulties we have to face. We need to go to God and pour our hearts out to him.

We can be bolder coming to God that we can be in coming to anyone else. He’s given us more reason to trust him than any human can do. People around us may make us feel unwelcome or threatened or inferior. But God makes us welcome.

Fourth, faith is very personal (3:14-17).

Can we trust God with our very selves? Faith includes thinking and deciding but, in the end, it’s an affection that submits to the one we have found can be trusted and loved.

Paul asks for the Holy Spirit to inwardly strengthen us. It takes real people to love—not self-made phantoms. What God does to save us, and the reconciliation he offers to all nations—the things Paul has been talking about—leaves us out of our depth. But we need to swim!

Trusting in Jesus Christ has taken us to God himself. And God has come to us—into us.

Keep reading God’s promises, and keep asking to grow in understanding until faith grows warm!

In practical terms, having a shield of faith is having God himself as protection (Genesis 15:1; Psalm 33:20; 91:4). Many have found that God is like a shield—‘a very present help in time of trouble’.

We all need to say what Mary says, ‘May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38). That’s how Jesus comes to be born. And it’s how we live by faith. Satan can’t get near this (1 Peter 5:9). He can’t give anything to someone who is already satisfied!

7—It’s God who saves

A Christian is someone who knows they need God to save them from the trouble they are in.

If there’s no God, we may think our difficulties are visible, discoverable and solvable. But, in fact, we are created to reflect God. Only he can fix what he has made.

Paul says we need to take God’s salvation as a gift and wear it for protection (Ephesians 6:17). Apart from this, we get overwhelmed.

He’s not telling us to become Christians. That’s already happened. He’s saying that we need to live in the victory God has won over our enemies. This includes our own sinfulness, the world that hates God and Satan who supervises it all.

By sending his Son into the world, God has already made the winning move, has the end game all arranged, and has included us in his victory. We need to know this and live in it.

Without this, we become afraid—quickly, and even constantly. We may believe the gospel and try to please God, but have no energy. Satan gains the advantage. He hasn’t taken us over, but he has us contained.

The world is good at being afraid. Opinion writers and governments can stir up anxiety easily because it’s part of living in the world without God (Hebrews 2:14). We are in danger of taking on this sense of being overwhelmed. But we don’t need to.  

We need to know what it means to be saved by God, and Paul makes this clear in his letter.

First, our salvation has happened, convincingly.

We used to drift along with the world, basically, being guided by our passions. Without us realising, Satan had us doing his business. More than this, we had to live with dread because we couldn’t change the fact that we are made by God and would have to face his anger one day (2:1-3).

But God has given us life. The message of Jesus, about his life and death and resurrection, came to us as mercy from heaven, relief for our conscience, hope for our future. Simply, we believed (1:13; 2:4-10).

This message was convincing because it didn’t come from us. It came to us, from God. Anything that starts with us is going to be shaky.

And then, we knew we’d been saved to do good things—things God wanted done. A new life was already in progress. We were launched!

Now—Paul speaks to us Christians, ‘Receive this gift—every day! Wear it as protection for your head. Don’t ever think you are on your own. Not ever!

If this is settled, we can put way our fears. We can expect God’s help in everyday things because he’s looked after our most important thing. We will never have to face his anger. We know God as our Father! We have been set up for a useful life. We can love each other because we are no longer anxious about ourselves.

Second, our salvation will happen, comprehensively.

God is always getting us to look forward to what he is going to do. In a coming age, he has more kindness to show us that we can imagine at present (2:7). Elsewhere, Paul calls this ‘helmet’ the hope of salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8).

God has included us in his plan to have the entire creation working harmoniously under Christ (1:9-10). And we have been marked for inclusion in this inheritance by the gift of the Holy Spirit (1:13-14).

This Holy Spirit has already enabled us to call Jesus Lord, and to call God our Father. Already, he is producing changes in our lives (Galatians 5:22-25). This helps us to hope for more amazing things to come.

Imagine God looking at his world now—like he did at creation—and calling it good. Everywhere, creation is struggling to be the beautiful place it was intended to be (Romans 8:22-23). Fancy him looking at us—stumbling and suffering—and saying, ‘That’s good enough.’

God would be ashamed of us if we only thought he could do what we are seeing now (Hebrews 11:13-16).

What God has begun in us is not the finished product. We have been saved to participate in the renewed creation. This means us—immortal and perfected. It means our environment—unpolluted and glorious. It means nations bringing their glory into God’s kingdom. There won’t be a place where Jesus isn’t known and reverenced (Isaiah 11:9). Righteousness and joy will be total.

Paul acknowledges that this involves some suffering in the present but he insists it is like the suffering of a woman giving birth. It’s suffering with a joyous outcome (Romans 8:18-21). He also tells us to wake up because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed’ (Romans 13:11).

Third, our salvation is happening, continuously.

This is what Paul has in mind when he says we should wear our salvation confidently (6:17). It’s what we are receiving now.

In addition to being sure we have been saved, and being sure that we will be saved, he wants us to be sure we are being saved (1 Corinthians 15:12).

This does not mean that salvation is gradual. It doesn’t mean the result is in doubt. It just means that what God is doing isn’t complete yet. We need this present time for our faith to toughen up, our character to develop, our hope to grow. We need this time for God’s love to be poured into our hearts (Romans 5:3-5).

Why wait until Christ returns to enjoy what he has done? Take it up now! Live in its certainty and hope. Relish the love that will then be total. Let that perfect future infiltrate every day. Understand that what you are doing now is eternal.

So, receive and wear God’s salvation. Don’t let the pessimism of the world, or its despair, ruin your faith. Jesus tells us, ‘When these [calamities] begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21:28).

8—God’s word our only weapon

We are well equipped in Christ for our battle with evil powers. Paul has told us how we can be protected. But now, we are given God’s word—as a sword (Ephesians 6:17).

Our situation changes when we take up an instrument of attack. We’re going on the offensive and our opponent takes notice. Remember, it’s not a human weapon. We’ve been warned about using force against our enemies (John 18:10-11). But still, it’s a potent weapon.

Let’s see how this works—in this book of Ephesians and several other places.

First, God’s word is announcing a victory.

We don’t need a sword because we are victims, or in danger. We are already in a strong position. God has raised Jesus from the dead—for us (1:19-20). We are alive and in God’s presence.

Can you imagine what a loss this is to the prince of this world? He had us thinking God was irrelevant or imaginary. Now we know this is a lie. Satan wanted us for himself. Now, we’ve left his domain. As Paul says elsewhere, we’ve been transferred to the kingdom of God’s Son (Colossians 1:13).

Then, God has made Jesus head over everything (1:16-23). This is what Jesus says before he ascends to heaven: ‘All authority is given to me’. His authority is being worked out through us. That’s why this passage is all about us being strong in the Lord Jesus.

This doesn’t mean we are better than others. It means that we are equipped to stand against Satan’s strategies and able to tell the world about the grace we have discovered.

Then, God has given us a seat, next to Christ, in his presence—in the ‘heavenly places’ (2:6). So, we can be confident, even bold, when we go to God (3:12). It doesn’t make sense for someone to be bold in coming to God and fearful because of spiritual opposition. We are dealing with an enemy who has already been defeated.

This word of God is given to us but it is not our weapon. It is the Spirit’s sword. In other words, it will be the Holy Spirit who makes it effective (John 15:26-27). I’ll talk more about this later.

Second, the word we’ve been given speaks to us—the church.

Jesus shows us how to tackle Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). He is the Son of God but doesn’t use his own strength. He quotes the word given to Israel. Like him, we need to love God’s word. We need to encourage each other with it (Colossians 3:16). Then we are ready to counter Satan’s approaches in the way Jesus did.

Paul shows us how to use the word of God in a church setting. He comes to his fellow Christians with humility and gentleness. But he’s still waging war! His describes his service to the church, and to the world, as pulling down structures erected by Satan in people’s minds—everything that stops people knowing God. He wants everyone to be obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).

The writer of Hebrews tells us the word of God is powerful, and sharper than a sword, and can distinguish motives hidden in our hearts. In particular, the word of God can pick out if we really want to be free or if we are just playing with God (Hebrews 4:11-13).

Jesus sends messengers to seven churches in Revelation. One of them is flirting with immorality and idolatry. If they won’t repent of this, Jesus will come with ‘the sword of his mouth’ (Revelation 2:16-17). So, we must all hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. It is the way Christ keeps his church overcoming the schemes of the devil.

Third, the word we’ve been given speaks to everyone.

The world is happily blind to anything it can’t explain or control. So, it’s impossible for us to convince people that God will judge them. We certainly can’t convince them that they are sinners. And we can’t convince them that God decides what is right and wrong.

But Jesus says the Spirit will do all these things (John 16:7-15). So, as we bear witness, so does the Holy Spirit (John 15:26-27).

This is why we need to be full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3). We could say God clothes himself with us. He enables us to tell what God has done in Christ. The Holy Spirit leads his people to the places and situations where his word will be heard. And it is the word of God that grows and increases (Acts 6:7; 12:24).

We have no way of telling how the word we hold in our hand can be powerful. Often, it feels very much otherwise. But in fact, Christ himself, by his word, breaks the power of nations through the testimony of his church (Revelation 1:16; 19:13-16). It’s happening around the world as we read these words.

Christians know that Satan has been denied his position as accuser, and so they overcome him by the word they speak. They are so bold in this that they are ready to die for its truth. This is the way God’s kingdom comes in its fullness (Revelation 12:10).

Paul tells us not to be ashamed of the word that announces Jesus being crucified and rising again (1 Corinthians 1:18). It is God’s power to save everyone who believes. The only damage we do by having God’s word is to the devil’s kingdom. What we do when we go to the world—bearing the Spirit’s sword—is to announce the best news it could ever possibly hear. So, don’t be shy of receiving the word God gives. And don’t be afraid.

9—Sharing life with God

The thing that’s unique about us Christians is that we know God. In seeing Jesus, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). We can approach him, love him and make requests.

From the beginning, Satan has sought to undermine this relationship, and Paul has shown us how to deal with his strategies. Now he tells us we’ll need to be praying as well (Ephesians 6:18).

You’ve probably noticed that in this letter of Ephesians, Paul doesn’t just tell us something and assume we know. He prays (1:15-17; 3:14-16). He knows that only God can reveal himself. This is true about every part of our Christian life. We are always needing things that only God can do. So, we need to share in this praying.

Here’s the directions Paul gives us.

First, pray in the Spirit on all occasions!

Prayer is not just closing our eyes and saying prayers. It will include that but it’s more a way of life that’s been opened up to us by the Holy Spirit.

If we check back in this letter, we’ll get some idea of what prayer in the Spirit might look like. The Spirit is giving us a taste of the life God is planning for us (1:13). He’s enabling us to know God as our Father (2:18) and to believe Christ is living in us (3:16). And he showing us we all belong together as God’s people (4:3).

Without this work of the Holy Spirit, we forget who we are and can easily become engrossed—and upset—with all the things going on around us. And then we’re in no mood to pray!

That’s why we shouldn’t grieve the Spirit (4:30). Rather, we should be filled with him (5:18). We are being kept in relationship with our Saviour and our Father by his presence (2 Corinthians 13:14). If we make it our business to enjoy this, it’s not a burden to share our life with God. It’s a relief. It’s a joy.

We need to throw open the windows or our stuffy lives and let some fresh air in. God means us to live by the wind of his Spirit, even while we are living in the messiness of this present life.

I hope this is the way you see prayer. If it isn’t, perhaps you could ask the Lord to show you something new about himself. God is the natural habitat for every human being. A Christian is, simply, someone who is counting on this being true.

Second, use all kinds of prayers! And make all sorts of requests!

Jesus says ‘Pray like this…’ and gives us a pattern for our praying (Matthew 6:9-13). It’s starts with things that are for God’s glory and authority and follows with all the things we are needing—including forgiveness.

So, with this pattern in mind, there’s lots of things we can say in our prayers. The main thing is that we are being real. The almighty God is our Father. He’s the only one who can make a difference. He gives good gifts. And he doesn’t want us to be anxious about ourselves. That’s why we need to trust him with everything we’re concerned about. Everything!

Third, persevere in prayer!

This means keeping on trusting when ‘the heavenlies’ seem unreal, keeping on hoping when nothing seems to be happening and going on loving when it’s not producing any response.

This also means praying whether we feel like it or not. The world tends to live by its feelings. And this makes us weak. If we believe God loves us, that he’s given up his Son for us, that he is interested in what we think and what we want, then we will pray. We don’t have to feel anything. We have to believe.

None of us finds this straight-forward. The idea that some people are special and find it natural to pray and that other are practical and find it hard is just not true. We all have spiritual tardiness (Paul calls it our ‘flesh’). So, we need to encourage each other and keep listening to God’s word.

This perseverance means a lot to God. It shows him that our faith is genuine (1 Peter 1:6-7). And it’s very important for us too. It produces the character that is appropriate to our future life in God’s presence (Romans 5:3-5).

Fourth, pray for all of God’s people!

When we pray for our fellow Christians, we are not just being kind to them. We are helping in the business of God having a company of people who love and serve him.

Paul calls us all ‘saints’—that is, God’s holy people. This doesn’t mean we are perfect. It means we are chosen by God to fulfill his purposes. And God is eager that we live in this way. So, there is plenty for us to pray for!

Looking back over these last few articles, we have seen what God has done to have us strong in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We are protected from evil powers because we’ve taken up all that God has done for us in him. We are protected because we’re being shaped by this gospel rather than by the world. We can stand firm because we’re using his weapons—not our own.

And now, by our prayers, we are ready to stand in the days God is giving us on earth.

In one sense, we are never ready to live—not by ourselves. But God has provided all that we need. And he waits to hear our prayers. So, we are always ready.

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).