Carved in Stone, Part 3: Accept No Substitutes for God

God made human beings in his own image, and we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since. But to make God in our image is to diminish his nature. How so? To concretize the living God into an inanimate object is to render him lifeless. But God is self-existent, eternal, and supreme; he lives, loves, rescues, and speaks—something idols can never do. Any attempt to concretize God’s identity, then, yields a distorted conception of who he really is. In short, an idol is a lie about God. 

Hence the need for the second commandment: “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” (Exodus 20:4). God wants his people to reverently accept who he has revealed himself to be. After all, if anyone has a right to define his own identity, it’s the creator of the universe. Moreover, Israel had been rescued from Egypt by the creator, Yahweh. To serve other gods, then, was not only disloyalty to God, it was to reverse the exodus and go back to bondage. 

It is important to remember that gods and goddesses in the ancient world could be carried, controlled, coddled, and manipulated. But the true and living God cannot and will not be controlled by his people. He is sovereign over them, and no earthly religious practice can alter that fact. As G. K. Chesterton rightly noted, “Idolatry is when you worship what you should use, and use what you should worship.” For Israel, then, worship of the one true and living God was never to be directed toward a material object that could be handled. The second commandment wasn’t a prohibition against all artwork per se (cf. Exodus 31:2-5), it was a prohibition against trying to represent God by anything found in his creation. 

It is also important to remember that Ezekiel 14:7 refers to “idols of the heart.” Moreover, Colossians 3:5 calls “greed” idolatry. So, the second commandment goes way beyond the issue of worshiping wood, stone, or metal statues. It encompasses putting anything ahead of God in terms of value or importance. As Tim Keller writes, “Idolatry is making a good thing an ultimate thing.” Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, “Where in my life have I made good things ultimate things (e.g., my children, my career, my possessions, my hobbies, my reputation, etc.)?” Even today, God’s people must accept no substitutes for God.

The good news is that God can save us from our own private idolatries. Rather than remaking God into our image, we can be remade into his image through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God”; indeed, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:15–20).

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Carved in Stone, Part 2: Worship God Alone (Exodus 20:3)

After God reminds his people that he graciously rescued them out of Egypt (Exodus 20:1-2), he begins the Ten Commandments in earnest: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The Hebrew literally says, “…no other gods before my face.” That is, “You shall have no other gods except me.” For the Israelites to worship any other god would be a form of covenant disloyalty. No other god saved them out of Egypt. No other god loved them and entered into a covenant with them. So, why would they worship any other deity?

Moreover, Yahweh is supreme: “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me” (Deuteronomy 32:39). Or again: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5). By his very nature, then, God deserves the exclusive devotion of his people. There was no need for the Israelites to be unkind to the worshippers of other nations, or the adherents of other religions, but there was every reason for them not to participate in their worship. That would be a form of spiritual unfaithfulness to the God who had saved them.

Unfortunately, Egypt was one of the most polytheistic countries in the ancient Near East, worshiping over 1,400 different gods and goddesses in their temples, shrines, and homes. Having lived and labored in Egypt for more than 400 years, the Israelites were influenced by their surrounding culture. They found it difficult to let go of the false gods they picked up along the way. God said to them, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:7-8). 

Despite cultural pressures, God wants—and deserves—to have preeminence in his people’s lives. He finds it revolting to have competition from substitutes, whether from the things he created or the vain imaginations of human beings. Those things are not ultimate. So, the first commandment is not given because God is narcissistic but because he wants his people to live in sync with reality. Yahweh is supreme in the universe! Therefore, worshiping any other God besides him is not only disloyalty but a form of insanity.

The same is true today. God allows the existence of alternatives in our lives, but he wants us to choose the best. Nothing else should be king in our lives, whether our job, our peers, our desires, our denomination, our theology, or even our families. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). God’s people are to worship God alone. Who or what is first in your life?


Note: Many people—including believers—have trouble reciting all Ten Commandments in order. The beginning of this message provides a silly acronym to help us recall them.


Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Carved in Stone, Part 1: The God Who Rescues & Realigns (Exodus 20:1-2)

The Ten Commandments do not begin with God saying, “Thou shalt not…” but “I…brought you out.” The preamble of the Decalogue thus indicates that grace was demonstrated before obedience was demanded. Grammatically speaking, the ten great imperatives are preceded by one great indicative: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). The giving of the law at Sinai, then, was a climactic moment of divine grace in the history of the world.

Still, God wanted not only to rescue his people from their oppression under Pharaoh, he wanted to realign them to his ways after their captivity in a polytheistic land. Their theology needed to be overhauled. It’s one thing for God to get Israel out of Egypt; it’s another thing for God to get Egypt out of Israel. The Ten Commandments were God’s initial strategy for doing so. But law keeping was never a means of “getting saved,” even in the Old Testament. God did the saving himself by his own power and grace. Indeed, God rescues his people before he regulates them.

The New Testament letters follow a similar pattern. Paul typically starts out by saying, “Here’s what God has freely done for us in Christ; now, here’s what our salvation looks like when we live it out in our daily lives. So, God’s law never presents itself as a means of salvation but a mark of salvation. In Moses’s day, the obedience called for in the Decalogue represents the people’s grateful response of love and loyalty to God for the salvation they had freely received as a gift from him.

This message contains a helpful illustration of how believers can understand the complex relationship between the old and new covenants. The illustration underscores that customs may change, cultures may change, and even covenants may change, but the character of God never changes. He is who he is and always will be. In the end, Moses stood between God and the people as a flawed man—a prophet but not a Savior. Jesus, however, stands between God and the people as a flawless man—a prophet and a Savior. And that’s why lawbreakers today can be saved.

Sermon Resources:

Series: Carved in Stone: Some of God’s Ways for All of God’s People

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Artistry and Architecture in the Fourth Commandment: New Proposals on the Context, Structure, and Beauty of Israel’s Sabbath Law

“The Sabbath was God’s good gift to a weary people, and all who embraced it enjoyed its beauties, mysteries, and delights.”
– Timothy R. Valentino

hebrew-bible-text-lightBelow is a link to my article, “Artistry and Architecture in the Fourth Commandment: New Proposals on the Context, Structure, and Beauty of Israel’s Sabbath Law,” published in the Fall 2015 volume of the Evangelical Journal. The introduction and thesis paragraph are reproduced here, and a link to the full article follows below:

The fourth commandment (Exod. 20:8–11) occupies a unique and exalted place among the laws of the Decalogue. Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, a medieval scholar, called it “the primary commandment given to Israel,” and “the first principle of faith, as weighty as all the rest of the commandments combined.” Other sages have described the Sabbath as the “bride” of Israel, elevating its status to the intimacy and mystique of marriage. In his classic treatise on the significance of Sabbath, Heschel goes so far as to say, “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.” So important is the Sabbath law to Judaism that some rabbis have placed it on par with the entire Torah. To keep it is to keep the whole law, and to break it is to break the whole law.

Historically, the Sabbath was God’s gift to a weary people. For more than four-hundred years, the Israelites had lived and labored as slaves down in Egypt, a nation organized around a ten-day workweek with no regular day off.5 Into such a world came the surprising text of the fourth commandment. The people who first heard it would have received it gladly. Their grueling and oppressive workweek had just been shortened from ten days to seven, with the seventh being a day of rest. In the text of this unique commandment, then, Yahweh reveals his compassion toward his people. His kindness and generosity are on display, as are his care and concern for all creation.

Centuries of scholarship have aided our understanding of the Sabbath law. What is often missing, however, is a detailed look at its literary context and internal arrangement. Such an omission is due primarily to the claims of higher criticism that the law has been embellished over time; therefore, its present form must be unoriginal and therefore untrustworthy. This paper challenges that claim. It proposes, instead, a sharpened arrangement for the Decalogue, and a new literary structure for the Sabbath law, showing how its internal architecture reinforces its meaning. Our investigation will reveal that (1) the fourth commandment constitutes its own unit within the Decalogue, and (2) the commandment itself is chiastically arranged. It is an exquisite text that defies any attempt to attribute its canonical form to scribal misadventure, editorial emendations, or other evolutionary developments. Indeed, the Decalogue is said to have been written “on tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God” (Exod. 31:18). As such, God’s artistry is on display in the Sabbath law. Not surprisingly, its literary presentation befits the beauty of its message, which we will also briefly consider.

The full article can be found here:

“Artistry and Architecture in the Fourth Commandment: New Proposals on the Context, Structure, and Beauty of Israel’s Sabbath Law” by Timothy R. Valentino. Published in Evangelical Journal 33/2 (2015): 49–67.

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