Be Right With God- Or Wrong With Everyone Else

Be Right With God—Or Wrong With Everyone Else

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 20:1-6

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was the most popular show on television a few years back, with as many as 33.6 million viewers. It looks like a simple game, but I discovered personally that if you don’t play by the rules, you cannot win. At the game’s peak of popularity, its producers advertised a phone number which viewers could call if they wanted to qualify as a contestant.

Out of curiosity, I called the number one night. I knew the answer to the question which the recording asked. But I got flustered and didn’t push the buttons on the phone in the right order. I broke the rules. And so, sadly, I couldn’t play.

When did you last play a game? Chess, cards, golf, basketball at youth camp (a big mistake I made this week)—they’re all the same in one respect: every game requires rules. The rules do not exist to frustrate the players, but to enable the game. Those who make and enforce the rules are not trying to hurt the participants but help them.

In the same way, the Ten Commandments are “rules of the game.” These ten principles tell us how life works, and how to live if we want to live well. They are guideposts along the road, designed to keep us out of the ditch. They are road signs pointing the way home. They speak to life’s most crucial subjects—God, ambitions, religion, stress, parents, enemies, sex, possessions, lies, and lust.

These two weeks, we’ll consider the first four commandments as we learn to relate to God; then we’ll explore the last six commandments as we learn to relate to ourselves and each other. We’ll be vertical these weeks, horizontal the next.

Join Moses on the mountain

The precise location of the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments remains open to question. A mountain known as Gebel Musa is the place preferred by most historians. It rises to an elevation of 7,363 feet, and forms part of a sandy plateau roughly two miles long and half a mile wide. There is more than enough room for two million people to camp there. The plain is itself some 4,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, with the mountain towering another 2,200 feet overhead. It is a huge granite peak, altar-shaped and awesome.

On this mountain or one like it, God inscribed two tablets. He wrote on both sides of each. If these tablets were 27 inches long by 18 inches wide, the 172 Hebrew words of the Ten Commandments could easily have been inscribed on them.

Moses shattered these tablets in rage when he descended from the mountain and confronted the idolatry of the people. God then made them again. Moses eventually laid them in the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred box carried before the people for centuries and eventually placed in Solomon’s Temple.

When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 598 B.C., they likely took the Ark and the Commandments it held. Most historians speculate that it is buried somewhere in modern-day Iraq, while some believe that Jeremiah took it to Egypt to prevent theft by the Babylonians and still others believe it is buried somewhere on the Temple Mount. The latter is my guess, believing that the Jews would not have risked traveling with the Ark, or losing it to the Babylonians.

While the Ark is lost to us, the words it contained are not. Imagine it: an obscure tribe of Egyptian slaves plunges into the desert to hide from pursuit, and emerges with a code of ten laws which are still authoritative today, 34 centuries later. A depiction of Moses and these Ten Commandments adorns the courtroom where the Justices of the Supreme Court meet, deliberate, and lead our nation’s legal system. These ten principles are still the foundation stones of moral and legal systems the world over.

We don’t need to find Mount Sinai to live by the words God recorded there. As you study this week’s text and prepare to teach its truth, you join Moses on the mountain of God. And you continue his crucial work of giving the word of God to his people.

Who comes first?

Our text begins, “And God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). What follows is not based on human rules or principles, laws to be changed by the voters or the legislators they elect. The Author of these commandments is “the Lord your God” (v. 2). He is “the Lord,” the Hebrew word YHWH—the holiest name of God, meaning the One who is, who was, and who ever shall be.

And he is “God,” the Hebrew word “Elohim—the typical name for the Creator God of the universe. Note that he is “the Lord your God”—this Deity is personal. No Buddhist would say, “Your Buddha,” or a Muslim “your Allah.” But we can know this God personally, as we might know “your wife” or “your husband” or “your children.” He is the holy Creator of the universe and all time, who is yet our personal God.

What does he want of us? Here is his first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (v. 3). It is categorically impossible to overstate the significance of this statement of monotheism and worship.

Remember that the Hebrews have just come from Egypt, where the people worshiped Ra, Phthah, Osiris, Isis, Horus, the animals, and the pharoahs. And they were going into polytheistic Canaan, the land of Baal, Ashtoreth, Asherah, Molech, and Dagon.

Their own ancestors had made the Tower of Babel, to make themselves God. Joshua had warned them, “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:3). This would be their tendency as well. In fact, they would make and worship the golden calf even as YHWH was giving this command to Moses on the mountain above.

So God says, “Have no other gods before me.” “Before me” means “against my face,” and requires absolute and unconditional allegiance to God and worship of him alone.

What a shocking surprise!

Before this, everyone knew that the universe was wild and chaotic, a jungle of warring powers: wind against water, sun against moon, life against death. There was a god of the spring planting and another god of the harvest, a spirit who put fish into fishermen’s nets and a being who specialized in caring for women in childbirth; and at best there was an uneasy truce among all these, at worst a battle.

Now along comes this Moses, from an insignificant band of desert wanderers, and shouts that all these processes are one process from a single source, that the obvious many are the unthinkable One. And he shouted it so loud that it has echoed down all time. This was the greatest discovery ever made.

How are you doing with this, his command to have no God but God?

Paul Tillich, the German theologian, spoke of “ultimate concern” as an issue at the heart of all religion. We all have something or someone of ultimate importance to our lives. How do you know what yours is? Three questions may help:

Where and how do you spend your time? That’s the real currency of our day. The average Christian spends ten minutes a day in prayer and Bible study. If I told you I loved my family, that they come first in my life, but only spent ten minutes a day with them, would you believe me? Does your time serve God?

Who are you trying to impress? If you had to choose between pleasing God and impressing your friends, or your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your boss, or your employees, who would you choose? Is it your ambition to please God?

For what would you sacrifice? When was the last time it cost you something significant to follow Jesus? Today, I hope.

How’s your soul with the first commandment this morning?

What comes first?

“Worship” is putting something or someone first in your life. The verb can take any noun as its object. We can worship something made of wood, stone, flesh, paper, or spirit. If that which is first in our lives is anything or anyone but the Lord God, by definition it is an idol. What does God say about it?

“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). “You” is plural, applying to every one of them and every one of us. “Shall not” is a command. If you and I find that we have an idol in our lives this morning, we must get rid of it, right now.

“Make for yourself” reveals a basic principle for life: if you can make it, don’t worship it. If you can buy it, or sell it, or destroy it, don’t worship it. I would rephrase this statement for our culture: “You shall not make of yourself” an idol. Anything we make for ourselves or of ourselves must not have first place in our lives, or it becomes an idol.

The ancient Canaanites made their idols of wood, sometimes of stone, often covered with some kind of precious metal. They made them in all sorts of forms, which is why the Second Commandment prohibits forms from the sky, the earth, or the seas—everything.

Such idolatry was a huge problem in the ancient world. The Egyptians worshiped idols, as did the Canaanites and the Jews’ own forefathers. The ancient Greeks, the most brilliant civilization of all time, also worshiped gods such as Athena and Zeus—so many, in fact, that Paul commented on the number of idols he found in Athens (Acts 17.22-23). Idolatry was such a problem that there are fourteen different synonyms and words for “idol” in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew Scriptures say more about this commandment than any of the other nine.

Why was idolatry so common? Because every human being is created with a need to worship God.

We each have a “God-shaped emptiness” inside us. As Augustine confessed to God, “you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”

But it’s hard to worship something we cannot see. So the ancients would make physical images for spiritual gods, seeking to portray divine characteristics such as power, fertility, or glory. In time the means became the ends, and they began worshiping the idols themselves.

This God cannot allow, for he is a “jealous” God (Exodus 20:5a). The word is better translated “zealous,” and points to God’s desire for an exclusive relationship with us. Just as no husband who truly loves his wife could wish to share her with another man, so God will not share us with another god. The term also shows that God truly cares for us, for we cannot be “jealous” or “zealous” about someone unless they matter to us.

Is the Second Commandment law or grace?

God says that he “punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (v. 5b). This is simply a Hebrew idiom, not a mathematical statement. The Bible teaches repeatedly that we must pay for our own sins, not those of others (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29,30; Ezekiel 18:1-4).

God is saying that our present-day idolatry has consequences for those who come after us, for they will likely follow in our footsteps. If I worship money, my children probably will, too. If I love Jesus, my family probably will as well.

This is why God says that he “shows love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (v. 6). “Love” is the Hebrew word “hesed,” like “agape” love in the Greek—unconditional, unbreakable. God is not saying that we earn his love when we worship him alone. He is saying that we put ourselves in position to receive this love by his grace. Then we respond by keeping his commandments. Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10); his disciple John said, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 2:3).

We can be idolatrous as easily as the ancient Jews or Canaanites, if anyone or anything becomes more important to us than our Lord. Consider again our three questions related to the First Commandment: where do you spend your time? who are you seeking to impress? for what would you sacrifice? Your answer is your “ultimate concern.” Any answer which comes before your Lord is your idol. Do you have business with the Father on this issue?

How do these vertical commandments affect our horizontal relationships?

Branded By My Stupidity

Branded By My Stupidity

John 3:9-16

Dr. Jim Denison

What’s the last really dumb thing you did? Mine was just a week ago. I was playing tennis, straining for a backhand, and jammed the end of my racket into my knee. Here’s the funny part. I use a Wilson racket, with a “W” on the end. I hit my knee so hard, part of the “W” was imprinted on the bruise. Branded by my own stupidity.

Later it occurred to me—most of my pain is similarly self-inflicted. Occasionally I suffer through no fault of my own. But usually I can take at least partial credit for my problems.

Here’s the good news: God won’t brand us for our stupidity. He’ll forgive every sin we confess, wipe the slate clean, and grant us his gracious mercy.

But here’s the bad news: I believe in his grace so much that it is easy for me to take it for granted. It is easy for me to continue to sin, knowing I can confess whatever I do wrong and be forgiven. It is easy for me to lapse into a life which misses the joy of Jesus, the power of the Spirit, the purpose for which I am made, a life in which I presume on the grace and mercy of God. I don’t want to live that way. Neither do you.

There’s a remedy for our problem. It’s called the “doctrine of the atonement.” We’ll discover the three non-negotiable steps to eternal life. We’ll see what it cost God for us to be forgiven and saved. We’ll learn why this doctrine is the most important in all of Christianity for those of us who are branded by our own stupidity.

Accept the uniqueness of Jesus‘ life

Our text begins: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man” (v. 13).

“No one.” No exceptions or contradictions. “Ever,” without conditions or loopholes. Except the “Son of Man,” Jesus’ favorite title for himself. Only he has gone into heaven, and then come from heaven to earth. Jesus and Jesus alone.

On the eve of his crucifixion he said it again: “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father” (John 16:28).

He was not just a prophet or priest, not just a religious pioneer or spiritual teacher. He was and is God come to earth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2). He is God.

No other religious prophet or leader ever made this claim, because none came from heaven to earth. Not Moses, or David, or Isaiah; not Buddha or Mohammad or Confucius; not Socrates or Plato or Aristotle. No other religion even claims that their founder came from heaven to earth.

The first step to eternal life is to accept this fact, to accept the divinity, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Believe that he is Lord, for only then will you make him your Lord. Only then will you trust the salvation he came to give. In a pluralistic world which believes that all roads lead up the same mountain, accept the uniqueness of Jesus.

One of my friends here at Park Cities is especially acquainted with my directional handicap, the fact that I seldom know north from south or the right direction from the wrong. In compassionate encouragement he gave me a cartoon the other day. It pictures one boy saying to another, “We went just about everywhere on our vacation. Then my dad finally asked for directions.” I’m grateful for such empathetic support.

Jesus didn’t need directions. He knows where he is taking us. He is the only person in human history who has been where we all want to go, and can take us there now.

On a trip, the only truly reliable guide is the person who has been where you are going. It’s even better if he will then take you there himself. And Jesus will.

Perhaps the most famous words C. S. Lewis ever wrote are these: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity 55-6).

Admit the necessity of his death

Jesus continues: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (v. 14).

“Lifted up” refers to his crucifixion to come: “‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:32-33).

Note that he said, “the Son of Man must be lifted up.” This was not an option, the tragic end to an otherwise remarkable life, just one way the story could have turned out. This is why he came, and what he must do.

On the Sunday before his death he said, “What shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour'” (John 12:27). He chose to die: “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18).

Why? Why was it so important that Jesus die? And that he die in this way?

Isaiah predicted his death and its purpose: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:5, 12).

He knew that he would bear our sins on his sinless soul. He knew that our sins would separate him from his Father for the only time in eternity. He knew that on the cross he would cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1). And he came anyway, for us.

The Bible says, “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). From the beginning of biblical history, the payment for sinning against a holy God has been death. That’s why the Old Testament prescribed specific sacrifices for specific sins—a dove, a bull, a sheep, and so on. The logic was this: the sinner brought his sacrifice, a perfect animal which was incapable of sin. The priest took the animal from the sinner, laid it on the altar, and slaughtered it. The Lord in his grace transferred the guilt from the man to the animal. If the animal had committed sin, it would have to die for its own transgression. Because it was innocent, it could die for the one who was guilty.

In exactly this way, Jesus was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). If there were another way to heaven, Jesus would not have died on the cross for us. If pluralism is right, and all roads lead up the same mountain, Jesus would not have died on the cross. Buddhism cost Buddha nothing; Islam cost Mohammad nothing; Confucianism cost Confucius nothing; Christianity cost Jesus Christ everything.

If we don’t understand the necessity of Jesus’ death, we will not accept the results of that death in our lives. If we think we can save ourselves, or that all faith is the same, or that we’re good enough for God, we’ll refuse the gift which Jesus died to give us.

Understand that if Jesus had not died on the cross for your sins, you would have to die for them yourself. Your sins would separate you for eternity from a holy God. His death is the only means of your life.

So accept the divine uniqueness of his life, and admit the necessity of his death for your sins.

Ask for the gift of eternal life

Now we are ready for the third essential step to eternal life: ask for the gift Jesus died to give. Ask him for the gift of eternal life. Here is the result of his atoning sacrifice: “that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (v. 15). But we must ask for this gift to receive it.

“Everyone” contains no exceptions or qualifications.

“My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40, emphasis mine).

According to ministers who know, Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strongman and corrupt dictator, became a believer in prison. According to ministers who know, Jeffrey Dahmer, the horrific cannibal who was murdered in prison, trusted in Christ as his Lord shortly before his death. They are part of the “everyone.”

And so are you. So am I. The long arm of God’s grace can reach into the lowest valley and save the worst soul. Even ours.

But we must “believe” in him. The Greek word means to trust personally. The devils believe and tremble (James 2:19). Jesus requires personal trust and reliance upon his grace. It’s the difference between believing that a flu shot is a good idea, and taking one yourself.

This is a gift we must ask for, before we can receive it.

All you had to do to receive birthday presents is be born. I’ve never asked for a birthday present in my life.

But this gift requires our free will. We can choose to reject if it we wish. We must ask for it, if we want it. We must choose to “believe” if we would receive.

When did you ask for this gift? Would you?


Will you accept the divine uniqueness of Jesus today? Will you admit the necessity of his death for your sins? Will you ask for the gift of eternal life he died to give? Then you are the child of God. Your Creator wants you to be his child, even more than you do. He wants you in heaven, even more than you want to be there. He always keeps his promises. And he promises: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). Right now, you “have eternal life.” You are the child of God.

Now, what sin and guilt is bothering you today? Where are the tentacles of immorality entwined in your soul? What brand of stupidity are you wearing? Take it to the cross. Nail it there. Leave it there. Ask the One who died for you to forgive you, to cleanse you. And the cross will set you free.

What temptation has found you this morning? What voice is whispering in your ear and luring your heart? Take it to the cross. Nail it there. Leave it there. Remember what it cost Jesus to pay for that sin. And the cross will set you free.

Gymnastics was the claim to fame for Houston Baptist University when Janet and I were students there. Our football team is still undefeated, but also winless. But we were good in gymnastics.

Our best gymnast when I was in college was named Percy Price. He was the only African-American on the team, one of very few on the campus. Racism was more common those days than it is today, and Percy had to endure much. He chose HBU rather than attending a Division I university because our coach, an Anglo named Hutch Dvorak, cared more for him than anyone he said he’d ever known. He was there for him, helping his family, caring for him as a person. They loved each other.

It was the largest gymnastic meet of the year, with top gymnasts from across the country. Percy mounted the high bar to begin his routine. Hutch was standing beside the apparatus, watching, just in case.

Percy was spinning at breakneck speed around the bar. Suddenly, for the only time in his gymnastics career, Percy lost his grip on the bar and was thrown to the hard gym floor, head first. Hutch Dvorak, faster than any of us could react, threw himself under Percy, broke his fall, and took the blow himself. I watched as the black man pulled his injured white coach to his feet, threw his arms around him, and hugged him, tears streaming down his face.

The next gymnast up on the bar also fell. His coach was sitting on the bench, 50 feet away. He was hurt badly.

Which gymnast are you?

For Whom Should You Vote?

For Whom Should You Vote?

John 3:1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

My title may have caused some of you to wonder if I’m going to endorse a presidential candidate today. I could do that if I wanted our church to lose its non-profit status, and if I wanted to violate the church-state separation essential to Baptist theology and American religious life. So I don’t think I will. Besides, I have another election in mind. One with even larger significance than the debates and campaign of these days. One which will effect every one of us long after the 2004 election is history.

We’ll hear today from two candidates, each presenting his own spiritual platform and hoping for your personal vote. Two of the wisest men of all time, engaged in a debate as current as this week’s news.

Meet the candidate for “good”

Our first candidate is described by his contemporaries as a short, squat, ugly little man with strangely-staring eyes. He is also considered by his peers to be the wisest man who ever lived. Historians usually trace our entire Western culture back to him. You know him as Socrates. He will speak to you now.

Good morning, and thank you for your invitation to speak today. I have but one point to make: your happiness depends on you. You can discover life’s highest value, its greatest good. You can learn all you need to know to accomplish your goals, to fulfill your dreams, to become what you were put on this earth to be. You can do it.

Here’s how: know thyself. The unexamined life is not worth living. But by examining yourself, by correct thinking and learning, you can become anything you want to be. There is an objective Good, and you can know it.

My student Plato put it this way: by right thinking you can escape this world of shadows and know the world of perfection. His student Aristotle claimed that by the right use of logic and reason, you can know that perfect world.

Those who followed them disagreed as to the best way to know the Good, but they all believed that you can do it.

In my ancient world, one group said that ceasing our desires is the way to happiness, while another movement disagreed, claiming that pursuing right pleasure makes us happy. Still another movement claimed that objective knowledge doesn’t exist, so if we’ll cease to seek such knowledge we’ll be happy. Yet another told us to align our lives with Reason and Fate to find happiness.

Many since my time have added their opinions. Immanuel Kant said duty for duty’s sake is the purpose of life. Friedrich Nietzsche told you that the will to power is basic to human fulfillment. Most of your American scholars believe that the greatest good for the greatest number of people produces happiness.

But we all agree: you can choose to be happy. You can accomplish your goals and fulfill your dreams. You can do it.

Abigail Adams, wife of your second president, said it well: “To be good and to do good is the sum of human purpose.” Your Thomas Jefferson may have said it best: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You have a right to be happy. And you can seize that right, fulfill that dream.

Most of your countrymen agree. Ninety three percent of you say that you are your own determiner of moral truth. Most of you know that humanity is basically good, that we may sin but that doesn’t make us sinners. We’re good, and we can know and do the good. To be good and to do good is the sum of human purpose.

If your religion helps you to be good and do good, all the better. If coming to church, reading the Bible, praying, doing church work helps you be a better and happier person, by all means be religious. Of course, you know that your faith is just your faith. You have no right to force your beliefs on anyone else. So be tolerant, be good, and do good. This is the sum of life.

Meet the candidate for God

Now let’s meet our other candidate, a Jewish businessman, political leader and scholar named Nicodemus. He is one of the most dynamic and successful people we’ll find anywhere in the biblical world. An astounding resume, Exhibit A for “success” as our culture defines it. Let’s hear from him.

I am pleased to address you today. Our moderator was kind, but accurate. I did actually have everything my society and yours deem important for success. I was everything my opponent wants you to be. Here’s my story.

I was powerful—in fact, I achieved more power than it is possible to possess in your society today.

My name meant “conqueror of the people.” Clearly my parents envisioned great power for their baby boy. Imagine naming your infant son Napoleon or Alexander the Great. I was born with a gavel in my hand, bred for success, raised to conquer.

And I fulfilled my parents’ wildest dreams and fondest hopes. How many of you want your son or daughter to be President of the United States? A member of the Supreme Court? A Senator or Representative? I did all that and more.

As your Bible says, I was a “member of the Jewish ruling council” (v. 1). This group was known as the Sanhedrin—70 men who constituted the Supreme Court of our nation. We possessed ruling authority over every Jew anywhere in the world. We were the court of final appeal. Even the High Priest was subject to our rulings.

If your nation had one ruling body which combined the power of the Supreme Court and the House and Senate, and possessed authority over the president and the military, that body would be our Sanhedrin. And I would be one of its members. There was no more powerful position in all the land. If power can find God, I should have found God. And yet I didn’t.

I was also one of the wealthiest people in our nation. After Jesus’ tragic assassination, I donated 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to help bury his crucified body (John 19:38ff.). This was the kind and amount of burial material normally used only for a king, and a very expensive gift.

I was part of the Jewish aristocracy, a very wealthy man. If your Forbes magazine had run a profile on Israel’s wealthiest men, my picture would have been in the article. Probably on its cover. If wealth can find God, I should have found God. And yet I didn’t.

And I was spiritual. One of the most religious men in our nation, in fact.

I was a “man of the Pharisees.” There were never more than 6,000 of us in ancient Israel. Our name meant “Separated Ones,” and that’s what we were—separated from all ordinary life to keep every detail of the Jewish law. The dietary codes, Sabbath regulations, everything. We were the Marine Corp of ancient Israel, the holiest men on earth in the eyes of our culture.

And I wasn’t just any Pharisee. I was “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10), a special kind of religious scholar, the man who taught other Pharisees their theology. Dean of the School of Theology, you would call me.

You can find no more religious man in all your Bible. If religion can find God, I should have found God. And yet I didn’t.

To be perfectly frank, I was good—in fact, better than good. I was Billy Graham meets Warren Buffett meets Chief Justice Rehnquist. If my opponent is right, if we can be good and do good in our own efforts, our own power and wealth and religion, I would be living proof. But all my good wasn’t good enough. So I came looking one day for help from the Rabbi I now serve. You should ask his help as well.

Cast your ballot

Now, before you vote for the candidate of your choice, I’d like to offer some concluding remarks. As a teacher of God’s word, I need you to know what it says about the election you’ll decide this morning.

I know that our culture votes for Socrates: we’re good people who can be good and do good. We haven’t hurt anyone, we try to be tolerant and helpful and moral. Humanity is basically good. And we’re included in that optimistic assessment.

But God says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Raise your hand if you’ve never sinned, if you’re the exception.

OK, we all make mistakes. Surely we’re better than most of the people we hear about in the news. But listen to God’s word: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).

So I’ve broken God’s law. What does that mean? “The payment for sin is death” (Romans 6:23), for “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). Our sins have separated us from God, so that we cannot get into his heaven.

Like Nicodemus, we need to repent of our sins. The word means to “change,” to admit them, to ask God’s forgiveness, to refuse to continue them. Unless you’re perfect, God requires repentance rather than self-righteousness. Unless you’re perfect, good isn’t good enough with him.

I know that our culture votes for Socrates: whatever you believe is fine so long as your faith is tolerant and helps you to be a good person.

“In God We Trust,” our money says. Eighty seven percent of us say we believe God exists. Ninety one percent of American women pray, as do 85 percent of American men. We believe in God.

But listen to his word: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons do that—and shudder” (James 2:19). Three times in the gospels, demons call Jesus the Son of God. Every demon believes in God.

And everyone in hell will, too. Here’s the future for all who believe in God but do not trust in him: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). On that day, every person on this planet will know that there is a God, for they will stand before his throne personally.

You can vote for Socrates, and try to become everything Nicodemus was before he met Jesus. Or you can vote for Nicodemus and become everything he is today—the born-again child of God, with purpose and joy on earth and eternal reward in paradise.


Our church wants to help you make the right decision. As I told our Sunday school teachers this morning, and our choir, deacons, trustees, and staff in recent weeks, the Lord has made clear to me that our highest emphasis this fall must be on knowing that we know Jesus. We will give every attender a personal opportunity to have the assurance of his or her salvation. This is “job one” in these months, our God-given responsibility and privilege together. You’ll be hearing much more on this subject in coming weeks.

For today, I invite you to go to the same Rabbi who helped Nicodemus. You can believe what he heard: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). You can ask this Rabbi to forgive your mistakes and failures and sins. You can repent of your self-righteousness, of seeking enough power and wealth and knowledge to be happy and successful. You can be born-again, today. You can know that you know God.

Now we’ll cast our votes. This morning’s election isn’t about who lives in the White House, but who lives in God’s house. No absentee ballots will be accepted. This decision is for eternity. Vote wisely.

God Will Give The Victory

God Will Give the Victory—

But You Must Fight the Battle

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 14-15

A commitment to the cause of freedom was made by those we will remember in this study. They risked their lives, their families, their entire nation and its survival. And our Judeo-Christian faith heritage is the result.

Where has God rewarded your faith commitment in the past? Think of the last time you trusted his word with your time, finances, ambitions, or relationships. Did he prove himself faithful to you? Where is he asking you to trust him with significant faith today? Even when Pharaoh is behind you and the Red Sea before you, the Lord of the universe is beside you. He may be all we have, but he is all we need.

When you can’t see his hand, trust his heart (Exodus 14:1-20)

There are times when we don’t understand why we’re where we are. We’ve been faithful to God as we knew his will, but hard times have come anyway. A pastor friend of mine looked forward to years of travel and study after his retirement, but died just a few months after beginning this much-anticipated chapter of his life. His widow still wonders why God led them as he did.

Another pastor friend has struggled greatly in a church he knows the Father called him to lead. His previous ministry was filled with joy and success, and he wonders why God has directed him to this place of struggle.

We sometimes find ourselves between an army and a sea, and wonder why. One of my favorite Christian songs includes the words, “When you can’t see his hand, and you don’t understand, trust his heart.” The children of Israel learned its truth, the hard way.

An unlikely route

When God led his people out of Egypt, he did not take them down any of the established roads of the day. He could have selected the “way of the land of the Philistines,” the short route along the Mediterranean coast to Canaan. However, this route was usually used by armies invading Egypt, and thus was heavily guarded.

The Lord could have led his people down the route further south, “the way of Shur” (Genesis 16:7). But this was a caravan route which ran to central Canaan, and would have been heavily guarded as well. Had the Israelites made their exodus down either of these roads, they would have encountered not only the military strength of Egyptian frontier outposts but also fierce opposition from Canaanite armies in the southern part of that land.

And so the Lord led his people in a way none before or after would choose: a road which ended at the western shore of the Red Sea. The exact spot is unknown to us, but the events which occurred at this location would change the course of Western history.

A feared enemy

Not long after the Hebrews left the land of their slavery, the mightiest army known to man came after them (Exodus 14:5-9). Pharaoh understandably interpreted their unusual direction to mean that they had lost their way and failed to find the roads eastward to Canaan (v. 5). Seeing a quick opportunity to regain his slave labor force, he dispatched his soldiers for what he assumed would be an easy military campaign against an unarmed foe.

The chariots he sent after Israel were drawn by two horses; one soldier drove the chariot and held the shield, while the other fought with arms. Their horses were bred for just this purpose. These armed chariots enabled the army to run down any infantry or people on foot. There was no place to hide, and no way to defend themselves. Imagine tanks against unarmed civilians, a Tienamen Square with predictable results.

The Hebrews were understandably terrified (vs. 10-12). They mocked Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” (v. 11). “No graves” is the double negative in the Hebrew, literally translated “no graves at all.” The charge was ironic, given the Egyptian propensity for pyramids and tombs.

Then they claimed that they had earlier asked to be left in Egypt (v. 12). There is no biblical record that they said this to Moses when their freedom was close and welcome. Critics always emerge when times are hard.

A trusted friend

In contrast to the fearful terror of the Hebrews, their leader evidenced remarkable faith in their Father and provider. He urged his people to make three decisions, each of them valuable in any crisis. First, “do not be afraid” (v. 13a). Choose not to be paralyzed with fear. Second, “stand firm” (v. 13b). Choose not to retreat from the crisis at hand. Third, “be still” (v. 14) and wait for the power and protection of God.

He promises his “deliverance” (v. 13), a word sometimes translated “salvation”—here it is meant in the literal sense of saving their lives. Later God’s people would come to understand that this deliverance is also spiritual and eternal.

And so the Lord protected the nation until he was ready to provide his final and total victory (vs. 15-19). The pillar of cloud may have used a desert whirlwind, but obviously acted in supernatural ways. Likewise with the pillar of fire, sometimes explained as volcanic activity but also inexplicable apart from supernatural agency.

God’s will never leads where his grace cannot sustain. In a crisis, be sure that you are where God wants you to be. And trust that he will stand at your side.

Stake your life on his word (Exodus 14:21-31)

Now, with the future of the nation in the balance, Moses made a fateful decision. He would not flee from the Egyptian army in retreat, disgrace, and defeat. Nor would he engage in military assault and certain annihilation. Instead, he would choose faith in the God who had brought them this far.

And the Lord proved himself worthy of such trust. The “strong east wind” which came over the Red Sea was no accident, as it appeared the precise moment when Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea” (v. 21). God had already proven his control of this wind with the plague of locusts (Ex. 10:13). Now he would show this power on an even greater scale.

Then the people staked their lives on their commitment to this God (v. 22). The parting of the Red Sea may have utilized some sort of seismic event, but is not explainable only as such. No earthquake in history has ever enabled two million people to cross a body of water to dry ground on the other side. The wall of water on the right and the left also kept the Egyptians from going around them or attacking from their flanks. The Egyptian soldiers had no choice but to follow the Israelites into the Sea.

Having saved his people from the sea, God now saved them from the soldiers. Their chariots bogged down in the same ground which the Israelites had covered with ease (v. 23-25), causing the Egyptians to finally recognize that the Hebrew God was fighting and winning for his people. Then he sent the sea back over the Egyptian army.

A skeptic once claimed that the Red Sea was a marsh only two feet deep, requiring no miracle for the Jews to cross. A believer replied, “Hallelujah! God drowned the entire Egyptian army in two feet of water!”

With this result: all of Israel was saved, while all of the army pursuing them was destroyed. Never in military campaigns does such a victory occur. Finally Israel recognized the greatness of her God and “put their trust in him and in Moses his servant” (v. 31).

Years later, the children of Israel would again be required to demonstrate this kind of faith. The crossing of the Jordan into Canaan illustrates the same faith which was needed on this day of Exodus and deliverance.

As the people broke camp on the eastern edge of the Jordan, they found the river “at flood stage all during harvest” (Joshua 3:15a). The river flows north to south, over 200 miles from Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea. It plunges nearly 2000 feet down across its journey, but typically flows in a peaceful, meandering stream. However, every year the spring rains and melted snow from Mt. Hermon combined to turn the stream into a raging torrent. The harvest period was roughly between Easter and Pentecost; this event most likely occurred in early April.

Now the people stood before a river which was a mile wide, 12-15 feet deep, rushing by so swiftly that it promised to drown any who stepped into it. The cattle and possessions of the nation would be lost. The children would have no chance to survive. Few adults could expect to live through this flood.

Picture the scene in your mind. The priests take up the Ark, grasping the poles which support its weight. They lift these poles to their shoulders. They march toward the river. They stop. No one speaks. You can hear only the pounding of the water as it rushes by, crashing against the shore. You can feel its spray against your face and smell the mist as it rises.

They don’t have to do this. They can stay where they are, secure and at ease. But they’ll never inherit the promises and power of God. They can try to find their own way across the river, but they’ll likely fail and drown. Or they can step out in faith. And they do.

Instantly, the pounding waters stop. The foam ceases, the spray dies. The river’s roar falls silent. All is quiet and still. And where only moments before there had been a deep, torrential river, now there lies before them a dry bed anyone can cross.

Now the people were required to demonstrate their own faith (v. 17). Would the flood stay blocked? Was it safe to step into the river bed? It would take the nation half a day to cross. Imagine parents with children in hand, all their worldly possessions at their side. What would your response have been?

Theirs was unanimous—the entire nation followed God by faith. They stepped into the miracle. And only when they did, could they see its power and experience its provision. It is still the same with us today.

A group of botanists spotted a rare specimen growing down the side of a dangerous cliff. They asked a local boy if he would climb down and retrieve the flower for a reward. He left for a moment, then returned with a large man at his side. He told the botanists, “I’ll go down, so long as my father holds the rope.” We can make the same decision today.

Give him the glory he deserves (Exodus 15:1-2, 20-21)

A basic leadership principle is: you can do anything so long as you don’t care who gets the credit. In spiritual context we should amend the maxim to read, you can do anything which God wills so long as he gets the glory. He will not share his glory with us.

Somehow Moses and Miriam knew the truth of this principle. The song they led the people to offer God admitted that the victory was not theirs but his. While their faith made it possible to receive his power, they did not earn it. Their deliverance was the gift of his grace alone.

Their praise is instructive for our worship today. First, we offer our song “to the Lord” (Exodus 15:1). Worship is not about us but him. Its success is not defined by whether or not we liked the music or the message, but whether he did. He is the audience of One. When did he last receive your praise?

Second, we remember all he has done for us (vs. 1b, 21). We think of his deliverance past, and trust him for his protection to come. Praise leads to thanksgiving. For what should you be grateful today?

Third, we offer him our lives in personal commitment. Note the personal pronouns: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him (v. 2, emphasis added). Martin Luther claimed that the most important word of the 23rd Psalm is the little word “my”: “The Lord is my shepherd.” When we worship him not just as the God or our God, but my God, we have given him our hearts. When last did you place him on the throne of your life?

You and I have experienced an exodus no less real than that of ancient Israel. We have been led from slavery to sin, defeating the armies of Satan and his demons, stepping from death into life eternal. We have been delivered. Give your God the glory he deserves.


Is there a Pharaoh in your life today? An army surrounding you? A Red Sea before you? A complaining multitude coming against you?

At my son’s recent baccalaureate ceremony last spring, the speaker made a telling point: even a dead fish can float downstream. Anyone can go with the crowd, back off when times are hard, give up when opposition comes. It takes courage and character to go against the flow, to trust God when you cannot see him, to stake your life on his word and will, to give him the glory he deserves. But such commitments make possible an exodus from night to day, from death to life.

Are you with Moses today?

God Will Lead- But We Must Follow

God Will Lead—But We Must Follow

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 11-13

Ronald Reagan’s death was a national event, as it should have been. What was it about him which made such an obvious and enduring impact on our country and people? His role in ending the Cold War and Soviet Communism is well known and appreciated, of course. His leadership in simplifying government and standing for moral decency was significant and inspiring.

But his optimistic charisma may be the first impression people recall from his presidency. Remember the eloquence of his words and spirit, the kind and gracious way he comforted the bereaved, and the confidence with which he challenged the nation and her leaders. Commentators and historians speak often of Mr. Reagan’s connection with the American people. He was someone we felt we could trust.

We all need people whose character we trust and whose leadership we can follow. Those who feel they cannot trust anyone are often subject to emotional distress and significant depression. At a formative time in her history, the nation of Israel found such a Person they could trust with their lives, families, and futures.

The Passover event was to them what the crucifixion and resurrection are to us—the pivot-point of God’s history with humanity. Lessons learned from this event would make and mold the Jewish mind and spirit, and the Western worldview through them.

Where in your life do you need someone to trust this week? What decision requires more wisdom than you possess? What problem is larger than your resources? Where do you need to know God’s protection and providence? The One who freed his enslaved people from the mightiest power on earth now stands on your side. Are you on his?

Passover and the people of God

The Passover event culminated nine other judgments brought by the hand of God against Pharaoh and his people. At each point, it teaches God’s people valuable spiritual lessons as we learn to trust this God as our Lord.

Trust the timing and power of God (Exodus 11:1)

As our text opens, the Lord makes clear the fact that what will transpire comes directly from his hand: “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt” (Exodus 11:1a). The Passover plague was no accident of nature or environment—it was the direct work of the Sovereign Lord of the universe.

This event would reveal not only his power but also his providence: “After that, he will let you go from here, and when he does, he will drive you out completely” (v. 1b). God knew exactly what Pharaoh would do, for the future is the present with him. And he was right: “During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites!'” (Exodus 12:31). We can trust the timing and power of God, for they are always for his glory and our good.

Ask for what you need (Exodus 11:2-3)

When the Lord first called Moses to lead his people from Egypt, he promised that the Egyptians would provide all that the nation would need (Exodus 3:21-22). He kept his side of the arrangement, favorably disposing the Egyptians toward the Hebrews and Pharaoh’s officials and people toward Moses. Now Moses must do his part in leading his followers to ask for all that God meant to provide for them (Exodus 11:2).

These articles would provide economic resource for the nation, but primarily serve as means of worship. (Tragically, they later used some of this plunder to make and worship Aaron’s golden calf; cf. Exodus 32:2). James chastised his readers: “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). John Wesley was convinced that God does nothing except in answer to prayer. So it was that his people were to trust him to provide for them through their Egyptians neighbors. So it is that God still meets all our needs in his own will and way (Philippians 4:19). But we must ask and receive in faith (Matthew 7:7-11).

Follow God as he directs (Exodus 11:4-10)

Next, Moses and Aaron were to go before Pharaoh with the message and warning of this impending judgment. He could not be a God of both justice and mercy unless he gave the Egyptians opportunity to repent of their rebellion. He used Moses to describe precisely what would happen if they refused his will. Only then could he act according to that purpose.

It has been said, “Don’t get ahead of God—he may not follow.” But it is equally true that we must not get behind him. And the latter is more our tendency than the former. So often God must wait on his people to step out by faith, so he can act in power. How many times I have hindered his effectiveness through my life by my own lack of trust in his will. Is there a faith step which God is asking of you this week?

Prepare to see the hand of God (Exodus 12:1-28)

Pharaoh has been warned—now God’s people must be prepared. With some of previous plagues Pharaoh at first relented, then refused to allow the people to leave. He might (and in fact did) do the same with this last plague. So the people must be ready to leave Egypt immediately.

With the Passover, the Lord inaugurated a new calendar for his people. Its first month would be this Passover month. This was the spring time, March-April to us; the Jews would call this month Abib and later, Nisan. Their year would begin with this event, as did their nation.

The people were to find a lamb for the sacrifice, year-old males without defect (Exodus 12:5), then slaughter them at twilight. They next used a hyssop branch to place some of the lamb’s blood on the sides and tops of their doorframes. Absent this preparation, the death angel would take their firstborn as well as the Egyptians’ (v. 13).

They would then prepare a special Passover meal of lamb and bitter herbs (v. 8), and eat it annually to remind their children and grandchildren of this event. As they spent generations in the bitterness of Egyptian bondage, so they would revisit their travails and thank God for their deliverance.

Without these faith preparations, the Hebrews would have experienced the terrors of the Passover deaths, and been marked forever as a disobedient and rebellious nation. But fortunately, “The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron” (v. 28). And their obedience to the word of God positioned them to receive all that his grace intended to give.

What must you do to receive the help and guidance of God? Such faith does not merit his help—it positions us to receive his mercy. You cannot read these words unless you are willing to sit before your computer; your class cannot participate in your presentation this Sunday unless they are present; God cannot give what we will not take. A clenched fist can receive no gifts.

Expect God to keep his promises (Exodus 12:29-31)

Finally the climactic moment came. At midnight the Lord struck down every firstborn in Egypt. Pharaoh’s own son died, proving the mortality and humanity of his family and his weakness before the Hebrew God. The “prisoner who was in the dungeon” (v. 29) represents the other end of Egyptian society; the loss of his son showed that none would be spared but the people of God. Only when the Lord’s power was manifested with such terrible consequence did Pharaoh finally relent and release his people (but note that his stubborn spirit would soon send his armies after them to their doom; cf. Exodus 14:5ff.).

Note his parting words to Moses: “And also bless me” (v. 32). Pharaoh’s first response to Moses’ message was quite the opposite: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Now this man has seen the Hebrew God in all his power, and finally recognized his own mortality.

In the Passover event, God kept every promise he made to Moses and his people. He had promised that he would use Moses to win the nation’s freedom (Exodus 3:19-20); that he would speak words of power through his lips (Exodus 4:12); that the Egyptians would give them all they might need and more (Exodus 3:21-22); and that his people would “worship God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Now they are on their way to that very place and purpose.

Passover and the love of God

The Passover event presents most readers with a troubling question: how could a God of love command his death angel to kill so many innocent people? Pharaoh and his court knew Moses personally, and made an intentional decision not to surrender to God’s will expressed through his message. However, their first-born sons presumably had no such information or choice. Why would a God of love and justice seek their deaths as the consequence of sins they had not committed?

This problem was not unique to the Egyptians. Remember that the Canaanites had lived in their land for centuries before Joshua and his people came to claim it for themselves. While some in Canaan fought against God’s people and were destroyed as a result (cf. the battle of Ai, Joshua 8:14ff), others mounted no armed aggression against Israel.

The people of Jericho, in fact, retreated inside their city walls and mounted no attack against the Jews. Nonetheless, following divine orders, the Israeli soldiers “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).

The God of Joshua also required a similar kind of wrathful judgment against his own people when they sinned. Following the battle of Jericho, a soldier named Achan took in plunder “a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels” (7:21).

This in direct disobedience to the divine command that “All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury” (6.19). For this sin, the Israeli army was defeated in the first battle of Ai. When Achan admitted his disobedience, he and his family were taken to the Valley of Achor where they were stoned to death and then burned (7:25).

Such vengeance sounds very little like the God who is love (1 John 4:8), the One who would send his own Son to die on a cross in place of our disobedient race. How are we to reconcile the God of the Passover with the Father of our Savior? Five facts may help..

First, the tenth plague was less severe for Egypt than Pharaoh’s edicts had been for Israel. While Pharaoh ordered the death of every male child (Exodus 1:22), the Lord’s decision affected only the first-born children. The Passover was of course disastrous for families across Egypt, but it did not decimate their nation completely. Given Pharaoh’s complete refusal to allow the children of Israel to leave their bondage, this measure was the only means left for God to use.

Second, the Egyptians and Canaanites lived in rebellion against the will and purposes of God. The Egyptians worshiped a pantheon of gods, and made the Pharaoh divine as well. Their idolatry was organized theologically: the Sun God emerged from Nun (the abyss), and created Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), who in turn produced Geb (earth) and Nut (sky); from them came forth Osiris and Isis, and Seth and Nephthys. These and other gods were worshiped through a variety of pagan rituals. Such idolatry was in direct conflict with the Second Commandment and the holiness of the one true God.

Likewise, the Lord had predicted that Abraham’s descendants would claim the land when “the sin of the Amorites” reached its “full measure” (Genesis 15:16b). This “full measure” of sin was attained by the Canaanites in the generation leading to the Jewish conquest.

Moses warned his people about these sins they would encounter upon entering the Promised Land: “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11). He stated that anyone who practices such sins is “detestable to the Lord,” and explained that “because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (v. 12).

Those who were conquered by Joshua and his armies were not innocent victims, but sinners who received the judgment their transgressions had warranted.

Third, the Promised Land belonged to God before the Jews left Egypt to claim it or the Canaanites established temporary residency there. It had always been his plan to give this land to the descendants of Abraham: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (Genesis 15:16a).

The Lord did not take from Canaanites that which was “theirs”—he reclaimed that which was his according to his foreordained purposes. And he brought his people from Egyptian slavery as part of his larger plan for their lives and ours.

Fourth, the blood retribution practiced by ancient tribal culture required the Jewish armies to destroy the sons and soldiers of their enemies. Otherwise, the son was obligated to seek vengeance for the death of his father. This fact pertained more to the Canaanites than the Egyptians, but it related to both cultures. Such unrest and hostility would have persisted throughout the nation’s history, with no possibility of peace in the land. What appears to be genocide was actually the typical way wars were prosecuted.

And fifth, in these formative early years of Israel’s history it was imperative that the people be kept from the influence of sinners without or within their nation. The holy God who gave them their land would uproot them from it if they rebelled against him (Deuteronomy 28:63-68). This warning came to pass centuries later at the hands of Assyria and then Babylon, and ultimately in the national destruction wrought by Rome in the first century after Christ.

God had to bring severe judgment against Pharaoh and his family and nation, so that he might free his people from their slavery and idolatry.

The Passover not only showed the Egyptians that they must bow to the Hebrew God—it also showed the Hebrews that theirs is the one true Lord. The death of animals sacred to the Egyptian gods as well as sons showed all people that only God is God. Given the Egyptian fixation with death, and the promise of its priests that they alone could guarantee the dead a safe passage to the next life, the tenth plague proclaimed in the strongest possible terms that all must make the Hebrew God their Lord.

Likewise, God had to judge the sin of Achan, lest he and his family spread the cancer of their disobedience within the nation. And he ordered his people to destroy all they found within Canaanite civilization, lest it continue to tempt them to disobedience and eventual destruction. We find similar severity during the formative years of the Christian movement in God’s judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

God does not change. But his purposes are fulfilled in different ways at different times in redemptive history. Justice required retribution against a sinful Pharaoh and his people, and against the sinful Canaanite civilization. And his salvation plan required a purified nation through whom he could bring the Messiah of all mankind. When Christ came, Moses’ and Joshua’s leadership of conflict and conquest was fulfilled.

Now we are taught to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44). Not because God has changed, for such love proves that we are “sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). Rather, because such love expresses his grace toward us and all mankind.


The Passover lessons we have discussed today would become crucial to the children of Israel in coming years. Again and again they would have to learn to trust God’s timing and power, to ask for all they would need, to prepare to see his hand of might, and to expect him to keep his promises. When they forgot these lessons, they fell into idolatry and sin. When they remembered them, they followed God into his purpose and grace.

It is the same with us. Where do these Passover lessons speak to your problem and need today? What will you do to make God your Lord this week?

God Will Meet Your Needs

God Will Meet Your Needs—But First You Must Ask

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 16-18

As I write this commentary from my study in Dallas, Texas, I have just been to church in England. The Methodist Church of Great Britain has started the Internet’s first virtual church: I was able to slip electronically into a worship service, sit in a pew, listen to a sermon, and participate in conversation.

The “church” still has some problems to work out—one user named himself “Satan” and began cursing at the pulpit, and the first “live” sermon was interrupted when the minister’s computer crashed. But organizers believe their effort has enormous potential. Only seven percent of Brits regularly attend church services, but 68,000 visited the Church of Fools in its first two days.

Churches these days are more intentional about meeting the needs of their members and communities than ever. According to recent surveys, the number of Americans who claim no religion has doubled in the last ten years. More and more congregations are trying new strategies to interest and attract unchurched people.

D. L. Moody was right: the message must never change, but the method must always stay relevant. Entrepreneurial, creative ministries and worship services have a significant role to play in reaching the unreached.

The problem with need-centered innovation, however, is that we can learn to rely on our methods more than the message. We can trust our creativity, our new programs and strategies, our buildings and resources. But only the Holy Spirit can change a life, convict of sin, convert sinners, transform homes, or do anything else which is eternal. Only God can meet the deepest needs of our hearts and lives.

What needs are most obvious in your life this week? In the hearts of those you will teach this Sunday? Are you tempted to bring your hurts to God only after you have been everywhere else? To ask him to bless your solutions rather than seeking his? To seek his guidance only after yours has failed?

Even the omnipotent God of the universe cannot give his children that which they will not receive. The Hebrews learned faith lessons we still need to remember today, if we would welcome by faith the help and hope our Father longs to give. For each event there is the complaint of the people, the provision of God, and the principle for our lives today.

Turning bitter water sweet (Exodus 15:22-27)

Four principles will guide God’s people to trust his provision for our needs. The first teaches us how to find God’s help in transforming pain to promise, making bitter waters better. It may be that you are dealing with a painful family conflict, a dead-end work environment, or a debilitating physical challenge. How can God transform and use our present frustrations for his glory and our good?

The complaint

The Desert of Shur (also known as the Desert of Etham, Numbers 33:8) was located in the northwestern part of the Sinai peninsula, just east of the Red Sea. It was not unusual for a travel to wander for days there without finding water. For this reason, travelers typically kept to the road by the Mediterranean Sea, or used trade caravan route to the south.

But as we saw in the last study, such a travel route would have led the Israelites into organized opposition from the Egyptian military outposts and Canaanite guards. And so the Hebrews began their travels across an arid region where water was difficult if not impossible to find.

There may have been two million people in this exodus. After three days, their stores of portable water have run dry. And three days is the longest our bodies can typically survive without water. Their families and livestock are in danger of dying from dehydration in the hot sun and arid climate.

So the people “grumbled” (the word means to murmur or complain) against Moses: “What are we to drink?” They found a spring (known as ‘Ain Hawarah today), but its waters were too bitter to drink. And so their spirits turned as bitter as their water.

The provision

God knew their need before they did. He did not bring them this far to leave them. He knew precisely how he would give them the water they must have. And he showed his provision in a miraculous way.

“Moses cried out to the Lord” (v. 25), which is exactly what we must each do when the need arises. Moses didn’t try to solve the problem himself, or ask God to bless his decision. He went to the Father first, as his consistent response to trouble (cf. Exodus 15:25; 32:30; 33:8; Numbers 11:2, 11; 12:13; 14:13-19).

And God gave him a divine answer: “the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet” (v. 25). This may have been a barberry tree, often used by modern Arabs to cover the mineral taste of the bitter spring at ‘Ain Hawarah and make its water palatable. Whatever means he used, God provided for their need by his grace.

The principle

Here is the lesson God wanted his people to learn: “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (v. 26).

The Lord further proved his provision by leading the people to Elim (called Wadi Gharandel today, seven miles to the south of ‘Ain Harawah), where they could camp near abundant water. He could have brought them to Elim first, meeting their need in this natural way. Instead, he chose to turn the bitter water sweet to demonstrate his provisional power to his people.

Jesus made the same point to his disciples: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

So long as we follow God by faith, he will meet all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). But we must follow by faith. No shepherd can lead his sheep where they will not go. Even God cannot give what we will not receive.

Where do your circumstances need the transforming grace of God? What bitter waters must become sweet? Give your problem to God first, and do what he says. There will always be a log at hand, and a spring nearby. With God, Marah leads to Elim.

Giving this day our daily bread (Exodus 16:1-7)

Sometimes our problem is that our present circumstances need to be transformed. Our marriage needs to be healed, our job made better, our health improved. But sometimes we are in places where we have nothing to transform. No job to make better, no family to encourage. The Greeks had a word we translate “poverty” which meant to have nothing extra. But they also had a word for “poverty” which meant to have nothing at all. Some of us know how the latter word feels.

The complaint

Now the people have moved on to the Desert of Sin (v. 1), in the southwestern area of Sinai. “Sin” is most likely derived from “Sinai” (and does not refer to moral failure, despite generations of preaching against the “wilderness of sin”). Now the problem is not water but food. Again the people “grumbled” against Moses and Aaron (v. 2), wishing they were enslaved but fed in Egypt.

A year later the people would again complain about their lack of food, and remember fondly their Egyptian diet: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” (Numbers 11:4-5). In contrast to such abundance, they are now in an arid climate where no food appears to exist.

The provision

The people were looking down and around, when God wanted them to look up. The Lord promised Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you” (v. 4). And he did—quail in the evening, and bread in the morning (v. 13). The bread took the form of “thick flakes like frost on the ground” (v. 14). The Israelites had never seen anything like this, and so they asked, “What is it?” “Manna” is the name they therefore gave the bread, for the word means literally “What is it?”

Speculation has centered on the nature of this substance. Some point to the granular honeydew which results from insect secretions on the desert floor. Others suggest that the Tarfa, a species of tamarisk, produces a juice which could become granular and gain the appearance of this substance.

But the “manna” was heretofore unknown to the Israelites, suggesting that it was a new and unusual substance. The fact that it would appear when they needed it, and in twice the daily amount in preparation for the Sabbath, suggests that the manna was divine in origin as well as provision. They were given this food for the forty years of their wilderness wandering, until they reached the ample resources of Canaan (v. 35).

The principle

God intended a spiritual result from his physical provision: “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (v. 4). He could have provided all they would need for months to come, but chose to give them their “daily bread” (cf. Mt. 6:11). He intended to give them enough on Friday to last through Saturday, so they would not be required to work on the Sabbath. And he wanted to see if they would trust him each day for their needs that day.

Unfortunately, many failed the test. They kept provisions longer than God instructed (vs. 19-20); and some went out on the Sabbath to gather bread, but found none available (vs. 27-30).

God still wants his people to learn the same lesson: we must trust our Father for each day as each day comes. “Tomorrow” does not exist. It is just a word, an expectation, but not a reality. Even God cannot help us with what does not exist. We should plan for the future but live in the present. And trust God for our needs as they arise, day by day.

All the while, remember the lesson of the manna: when you are so far down you can’t look anywhere but up, you’re ready to see the hand and hope of God.

Finding hope in hard places (Exodus 17:1-7)

There are times when we find ourselves in circumstances which need to be transformed, and times when we have nothing to transform but must receive all we need from God. And there are places in our journey where the answer to our need is found in an act of obedience which transcends all logic.

When God asks us to risk it all with a step of faith which seems foolish in the extreme. As strange as it was to throw a log into the water, or to collect manna and quail provided providentially by God, what came next required a level of faith which Israel would long remember.

The complaint

The people continued their pilgrimage through the Sinai peninsula, camping at Dophkah, then Alush, then Rephidim (Numbers 33:12-14). Again they found themselves without water. Again they complained (the word this time is “faulted” in the Hebrew) against Moses. Now they were almost ready to stone him, the last step in rejecting a Hebrew leader (v. 4). And again Moses brought their complaint to God.

The provision

The Lord instructed Moses to take an action which no one had ever attempted, for obvious reasons. He was to stand before the entire nation, with some of the elders of Israel at his side. Taking his staff in his hand, he was to strike the “rock of Horeb.” God promised that “water will come out of it for the people to drink” (v. 6).

If it did not, Moses would play the fool before all of Israel. And a people on the edge of mutiny would likely cross the line into anarchy and revolt. The very future of the nation, and of Moses’ leadership and even his life, hung in the balance.

Of course, God kept his word. Some have attempted naturalistic explanations such as a hidden spring now exposed by Moses’ blow against the rock. But note that the water was sufficient for millions of Hebrews and their livestock. Such a rushing torrent would not likely have been held by a rock a man could break with a single blow.

After the nation was given water to survive, it was led to military victory which ensured its continued future. The same rod which turned the Nile to blood, parted the Red Sea, and struck the rock to bring forth water, was now held over the battle with the Amalekites (vs. 8-16). So long as Moses held the rod high, the Hebrews prevailed; when his arms dropped, they did not. So Aaron and Hur helped hold his arms aloft until the people were given complete victory. The God who can turn bitter waters sweet and give manna in the wilderness, can defeat any foe—natural or human.

The principle

Israel would long remember the miracle at the rock of Horeb. Some five centuries later, Asaph would record the event in poetry:

He split the rocks in the desert

and gave them water as abundant as the seas;

he brought streams out of a rocky crag

and made water flow down like rivers

(Psalm 78:15-16; cf. Psalm 105:41; 114:8; Isaiah 48:21).

Moses and the nation learned again that their God could use human instruments to do divine work. This One who could bring water from a rock would also part the flooded Jordan river, lower the towering walls of Jericho, and defeat the mightiest of Canaanite armies. He would defeat a giant with a stone’s throw, and a lion’s den with prayer.

But only when we trust his power. Moses had to strike the rock before God would bring forth water. The rod was no more necessary to the rock than it was to the Amalekites. It was God’s way of showing his people that the power was his, not theirs. That faith receives all that God wants to give. That his provision is available by grace to all who will trust his love.

What rod is God asking you to grasp? What rock is he calling you to strike?

Learning to trust God in his people (Exodus 18)

One last episode in our text is worthy of brief consideration. As the people multiplied into the millions, a system of laws and courts was required. Moses is the trial, judge, and jury for their every problem and need. They do not yet possess written Scriptures to guide their decisions, and so turn to Moses for God’s word on every subject.

Just then Moses’ father-in-law Jethro provided timeless help for all who seek to lead effectively: “You must be the people’s representative before God, and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people…[to] serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you” (Exodus 18:19-22).

Consider five keys to spiritual leadership, each as essential today as it was when Jethro first suggested it.

First, represent God. Live in such a way that they can trust the God they see in us. We cannot lead people farther than we are willing to go, or give what we do not possess.

Second, intercede for them. Bring their disputes to God. Do not seek to solve their problems in your wisdom but his.

Third, teach them to know God personally. Teach the decrees and laws of God. Don’t give spiritual fish—make spiritual fishermen.

Fourth, model what you teach. Show them the way to live, by the way you live.

And last, delegate to capable servants of God. Find those men and women who have proven by their faithfulness that they can be used effectively by God. Delegate responsibility and authority as God directs.

Such administrative structure was as crucial to the nation’s survival and health as the physical provisions God gave through manna, quail, and water. Our Father cares about our emotional health as much as our physical needs. We can trust him for both.

However, his answer is often found in his people. We are the body of Christ, his hands and feet. When we give God our need, we must be humble enough to allow him to meet it with other people. To be open to their guidance as his, to their provision as his providence. We who teach and lead others spiritually are typically more comfortable giving than receiving.

If Moses had refused to receive Jethro’s advice and the people’s help, it is likely that he and the nation would have slid into chaos and perished in the desert. Lest the same happen to us, let us learn to trust God in his people.


What needs would you trust to God today? Would you ask him to transform your circumstances, or to give you something from nothing? Would you trust him to use your human frailty to bring miraculous provision? Would you be humble enough to allow him to use his people to help your hurting heart?

This week’s lesson is all about trusting God to meet our needs in his way, by his timing and means. It is about receiving in faith all that he wants to give in grace. It is about waiting on the Lord and trusting him to keep his promises. And waiting can be the hardest spiritual discipline of all.

The Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen was one of the spiritual mentors of this generation. Not long before he died in 1996, he described the kind of faith we are considering today.

He had become good friends with some trapeze artists, who explained to him the very special relationship between the flyer and the catcher. That’s a relationship the flyer would want to be very good, I would think.

As the flyer is swinging high above the crowd, the moment must come when he releases the trapeze and arcs out into the air. He is suspended in nothingness. He cannot reach back for the trapeze. There is no going back. But it is too soon to be grasped by the one who will catch him. He cannot accelerate the catch. In that moment, it is his job to be as still and motionless as he can.

“The flyer must never try to catch the catcher,” the trapeze artist told Nouwen. “He must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him. But he must wait. His job is not to flail about in anxiety. In fact, if he does, it could kill him. His job is to be still. To wait. And to wait is the hardest work of all.”

Are you waiting on God? Or is he waiting on you?

Honor God- Or Dishonor Yourself

Honor God—Or Dishonor Yourself

The life and legacy of Moses

Dr. Jim Denison

Exodus 20:7-11

The Third Commandment states, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7). As with the other commandments, “you” is plural, so that this commandment applies to every one of us, with no exceptions.

“Shall not” shows that this is a commandment, not just a suggestion or principle for life. It is as important to God as the commandments not to murder or commit adultery. This is crucial to God.

“Misuse” means to take his name “in vain.” The word means “groundlessly, emptily, without basis,” and includes frivolous, insincere, or unjustified use of the name of God. Its original context was legal in nature. When a person testified before the elders or council, he was to speak “in the name of God.” This was something like our oath “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The commandment was not to promise truth “in God’s name,” then lie or deceive.

Who to honor

“The name of the Lord your God” is the central phrase of this Third Commandment. Jewish people associated the “name” of a person with his or her basic identity. For this reason, biblical characters were often assigned names to describe them. (“Esau” means red, because he was red-headed; “Isaac” means laughter, because Sarah laughed when God said she would have a son.)

And so the “name of God” deals of his basic character and identity. To speak of the “name of God” was to deal with his very nature, being, and person. For this reason, the names of God in the original biblical languages were sacred to the Jewish people. Each of them said something important about God.

YHWH meant “the One who was, is, and ever shall be.” This name showed that God is eternally the Lord.

“God” here is “Elohim,” literally “the God of gods.” This says that he alone is God, above all other deities worshipped around the world. In a day of polytheism and henotheism (each country had their own god), he alone is the God of the universe.

“El-Elyon” (Genesis 14:22, Deuteronomy 32:8-9) means “God most high,” showing that God rules the world today.

“El Shaddai” (Exodus 6:3) means “God Almighty,” and shows that he has all the power of the universe, and we have none.

“Pahad” means “the One to be feared” (Genesis 31:42; 1 Samuel 11:7). We are to approach him with awe and reverence.

“Adonai” (Isaiah 6:1) means “Lord of all,” the one who reigns.

“Jehovah-Jireh” (Genesis 21:22; 22:14) means “the Lord who provides” for our every need.

“Jehovah-Tsidkenu” (Jeremiah 23:6) means “the Lord is our righteousness,” so that we can be holy and righteous only as he makes us so.

“Jehovah-Shalom” means “the Lord is peace” (Judges 6:24), pointing to the fact that only God can give us peace.

These are just some of God’s names in the Scriptures. As you can see, the “name of God” describes his character, identity, person. In other words, the name of God means God himself. Consider some examples:

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1).

“May the LORD answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you” (Psalm 20:1).

“Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds—his name is the LORD—and rejoice before him” (Psalm 68:4).

“He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name” (Psalm 111:9).

“The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).

“A scroll of remembrance was written in [God’s] presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name” (Malachi 3:16).

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).

“Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5).

“Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew. 18:20).

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

“‘Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again'” (John 12:28).

“These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

“The Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name'” (Acts 9:15-16).

“God exalted him to the highest place and gave him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

“Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1).

“On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords'” (Revelation 19:16).

Here’s the point: to misuse God’s name is to misuse God, to abuse him, to slander his character and reputation. This issue was so important that the third commandment is the only one of the ten with an immediate threat of punishment. It stands to reason, then, that we would want to know how to keep this commandment—what it means to dishonor God’s name, and to honor it.

How to dishonor God

The first way people break this commandment is to use God for ourselves. In biblical days people would swear falsehood in court, in the name of God. They made business deals or personal promises in his name, then broke those contracts. They used God’s name in a profane way, to curse someone or to express anger.

We obviously break this commandment today if we use God’s name in profanity. Such language has no place in Christian character or conduct. And when we use God’s name in swearing or cursing, we dishonor his character. We abuse his reputation. We use him for ourselves.

We also use God’s name when we manipulate others with it. The preacher who says, “God told me you need to give money to this ministry”; the husband who says, “God told me to divorce you”; the parent who says, “God will punish you if you don’t do as I say.” We take his name “in vain,” for our own purposes. We use God for ourselves. And this, the Lord of the universe will not allow.

A second way people break this commandment is to make faith into religion. For instance, the Jewish people took this commandment to mean that they should never pronounce God’s personal name. Only the High Priest, once a year on the Day of Atonement, was allowed to speak YHWH, and only in the Holy of Holies.

The scribes even wrote YHWH so that the people wouldn’t pronounce it. The original Hebrew language had only consonants. So the scribes took the vowels from another name for God, Adonai, and put them under the consonants YHWH. This was to tell the reader to say “Adonai,” not “YHWH.” Over the centuries we’ve combined the added vowels with these consonants and created “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” but this was almost certainly not how the name was originally pronounced.

When the scribes would come to YHWH, they would put down their pen, stand in the corner for a time of meditation and prayer, then take off their clothing, wash, put on new clothing, take a new quill pen, and write YHWH. They would then burn this pen and clothing, put on their old clothing, take up their old pen, and continue their work.

We can still make faith into legalistic religion today. If your faith consists of the time you spend at church, the Bible study and prayer you do at home, the money you give, so that you think God likes you better when you are religious and is ashamed when you’re not, you’ve made faith into religion. Faith is relationship, expressed in religious ways. It is not a set of legalistic rules. Or else we misuse the name and worship of God.

3. The third way people break this commandment is to trivialize God. We can compartmentalize him, so that he is only one part of our lives. We know we’re going to heaven, that we have our “fire insurance,” so we can come to church to pay our religious dues. But we don’t let our religion affect our lives.

This approach explains the fact that ethical behavior is the same inside and outside the church today. The divorce rate among Baptists is even higher than it is in the outside culture. We make sure we don’t misuse the name of God, we make him a part of our lives, and think that’s all he wants. But it’s not.

Ultimately, to keep the third commandment means to honor God with our lives. To live so that we bring glory to God’s name, character, and reputation, in all we do.

To be a “Christian” is to be a “little Christ.” Our lives now reflect on Christ in all we do. We are the only Bible most people will read, the only church they’ll attend. We are to live so that God will be honored by what we do. As I’ve said before, I became a Christian because of the joy I saw in Christians. So will others, because of us. Jesus was very clear: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

How would your friends and associates say you’re doing with the Third Commandment?

Who needs a Sabbath?

The Fourth Commandment deals with the “Sabbath,” our translation of the Hebrew “shabbath,” which means to rest from labor. Who needs such rest today?

The three greatest killers of Americans are not cancer, heart attacks and accidents, but computers, pagers, and telephones. The annual cost of running red lights, in medical bills, car repairs, etc., is $7 billion. The average amount of time saved by running a red light is 50 seconds. We’re asking the wrong questions.

Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, wrote his autobiography a few years ago. In it he told about an unusual event at Edwards Air Force Base in the late fifties. A pilot testing a Mach 2 fighter actually outraced the shells from his cannons and shot himself down. I’ve done that, running too fast for my own good. Haven’t you?

Who needs time away, time alone with God? Jesus did. He spent forty days alone with God in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. When he began that ministry, one of his first actions was this: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Later in Mark’s Gospel we read, “because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'” (Mark 6:31).

Still later in his ministry we read, “After Jesus had dismissed the people, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23). All through his life and even the Gethsemane before his death, Jesus practiced the “shabbath.”

Who needs time away, time alone with God? I have learned this fact: we cannot be much for God until we have been much with God. The issue is not how to prioritize our schedule, but how to schedule our priorities. We must put first things first, for the sake of our souls, our homes, our marriages, our lives.

What is not a Sabbath?

The Fourth Commandment is the longest of the ten, 48 Hebrew words by my count (in contrast to two for the sixth command, “Not shall you murder”). The “shabbath” clearly matters to God.

So we are told to “Remember the Sabbath day.” “Remember” means to observe, to venerate, like “Remember the Alamo.” This is something we choose to do, intentionally and consciously. “Keeping it holy” means to make it separate, different, distinct. A day different than the rest of the week.

The Hebrews worked “six days,” from sunrise to sunset, thus a typical 70 hour work week. Labor was part of God’s will for us in the Garden, before the Fall, and will be as we worship God forever in heaven. But on the “shabbath,” we are not to work at all—and neither is anyone else. Everything alive, even animals, need this time away.

This issue is so important to God, he set the model for us. The God who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Ps. 121:3) didn’t need a day off. He observed a Sabbath to teach us to do the same. This is the only commandment of the Ten for which God has set a personal example.

What does God not mean? First, the Sabbath is not a legalistic religious requirement. The ancient Hebrews were so concerned with the Shabbath that they devised 39 ways of breaching it, each divided into 39 ways, for 1521 different Sabbath rules. A scribe could not carry a pen; a person could not kill a flea; we could not wear clothing it was possible to carry (because we might get hot and carry it).

A second wrong answer to the question: the Sabbath is not church attendance. The first Christians worshiped God on Sunday. This was the day Jesus rose from the dead, and the day Pentecost birthed the church. Jesus chose to rise on Sunday; the Spirit chose to fall on Sunday. This is the “Lord’s Day” (cf. Ac 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Rev. 1:10).

But the Roman Empire did not observe this day as special in any way. And so the Christians would worship, then go to work. This was a normal day for their culture. They would observe a “shabbath,” a day or time of rest with God, separate from their church attendance.

Unfortunately, things began to change with Constantine in AD 321, who laid down the first law that work in the cities must stop on the Lord’s Day. In 585 the Council of Macon forbade all work on Sunday. Alcuin (d. 804) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) erroneously identified the Lord’s Day with the Sabbath. The Reformers separated them; in fact, Luther (in his Larger Catechism) and Calvin (in the Institutes 2.8.32,34) were very adamant that they are two completely different concepts. They were right.

Going to church is not keeping a Sabbath. You may make Saturday night or Sunday morning your shabbath day, your day to be alone with God. But church attendance is not the same thing as the Sabbath.

How do we keep a Sabbath?

First, get alone. Make a time and a place where nothing else in your life can intrude. Your office at work or living room at home are probably not the best places. Find a solitary place and use it for your shabbath.

Second, get alone with God. Read the Scriptures, asking God to speak to you. Write what he says in a spiritual notebook. Keep a prayer list you work through with him. Read devotional literature which helps you draw closer to Jesus. Listen to him. Jesus stands at our hearts, wanting to come in and eat with us, but we must be quiet enough to hear his knock at the door.

Third, get alone with God daily. One day a week isn’t enough food for our bodies, or our souls. Make a daily appointment to be alone with God, in your shabbath. When is your next appointment with your Father?

Last, get alone with God daily, and retreat regularly. John Stott, the great British pastor and expositor, once remarked that he needs an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year in shabbath with the Father. What do you need? What’s your strategy for this week? This year?


A newspaper in Tacoma, Washington once carried the story of Tattoo, the racing bassett hound. Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

A motorcycle officer named Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it. As he passed the car he saw that the something was Tattoo. “He was picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could,” said Filbert. He chased the car to a stop and rescued Tattoo, but not before the dog reached a speed of 20 mph and rolled over several times. Tattoo was fine, but asked not to go out for an evening walk for a long time.

Who has your leash today, you or God?

Pledging Allegiance On Our Knees

Pledging Allegiance on Our Knees

1 Peter 2:13-17

Dr. Jim Denison

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” I learned the truth of that maxim in a new way this week.

I wrote the sermon for this weekend earlier in the week, continuing our series on knowing that we know him. Then I was part of our prayer group which meets each week at 6 a.m. on Thursday; you are all invited, and would be blessed by being part of this special time together.

I asked our group to pray for America in light of the imminent elections, and happened to turn to today’s text as part of my request. As we were praying together, I sensed the Holy Spirit speaking to me. I was to set aside the sermon I had prepared, and write another one. One which would teach us the word of God specifically regarding the circumstances of these days.

So our publications ministry called the printer, changed the sermon title and text, and here we are.

I would introduce our conversation in this way. The “Pledge of Allegiance” has been much in the news since an atheist named Michael Newdow brought a suit in 2002 seeking to remove the words “under God.” We’ll not honor his request today. With the phrase preserved, there are two ways to say the Pledge—one with a comma between “one nation” and “under God,” the other without it. Let’s say it both ways.

First, with the comma: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands—one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This way separates our unity and our spiritual lives.

Now let’s say the Pledge again, removing that comma: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands—one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I checked—this is the official way to recite the Pledge. Let’s learn to say “one nation under God” and mean it. How can we make the pledge true in our country and in our lives? And why does the issue matter so very much?

Match verbs and nouns

There is much more in our text than we have time to examine in detail this morning. So let’s drill down into those parts which relate especially to us and our country on this momentous and historic weekend.

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake” (v. 13a).

“Submit”—place yourself under the authority of another.

This is an imperative in the Greek—a command, not an option.

The command is in the present tense, an ongoing commitment

Do this “for the Lord’s sake”—not because the authorities in question deserve your loyalty, but because God requires it. Not because you like or don’t like the administration, or the person elected this Tuesday, or the government. But because you love the Lord.

“To every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors” (vs. 13b-14).

“Every authority”—again, no exceptions or qualifications; whether you voted for them or not.

The “king” would be Caesar to Peter, the president to us.

“Governors” would be their regional authorities, exercising the power of the Empire; they would be local and state officials to us.

“Show proper respect to everyone” (v. 17a).

Again, a present tense imperative—a daily command to obey.

“Respect to everyone”—allegiance, positive encouragement; not slander but support wherever you can. If Peter could do this with Nero, Americans can do this with our president and our leaders.

How? “Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king” (v. 17b).

Love each other—don’t fear one another.

Honor the king—don’t fear him; and you don’t have to love him.

Fear God—reverence him alone.

Now, how do we do all three? How do we love America, honor our leaders, and fear our Lord?

We vote. We exercise the right eight million Cubans do not have, just 90 miles south of our country. We exercise the freedom more than a thousand Americans have died to give those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me be blunt: there can be no excuse for every American of voting age not to vote. Long lines are no excuse—I cannot stand them, but I stood in one. Whether you are especially attracted to one candidate or the other is no excuse. Believing that your vote is not needed is wrong—if the 2000 election taught us anything, it is that 537 votes can elect a president. And it is irrelevant—it is your responsibility to vote.

So we vote, and we pray. We pray because we love Americans, because we honor our leaders, and because we fear God. Now, how can we pray best? How can we pray so that God can bless America?

Pray for America to be “one nation”

If the polls are to be believed, Americans are more divided in this election than in any in recent memory.

538 electoral votes are in question; Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry must win 270 votes to achieve the presidency. Commentators are now discussing options never mentioned in my lifetime.

What happens if the vote is tied, 269-269? The states each get one vote in the House of Representatives, with 30 of the 50 aligned with the Republican Party. What if no candidate achieves a majority of electoral college votes? The newly-elected House of Representatives chooses the next president.

What happens if the election is contested legally? Both sides are preparing extensive legal teams in case the election results mirror those of 2000. That’s how divided the country appears to be.

We’re divided, and distrustful. Concerns about possible voter fraud are mounting.

As many as 58,000 absentee ballots mailed in Florida may never have reached the voters who requested them.

Colorado is investigating the fact that 3,700 have registered to vote in more than one county this year.

A lawsuit has been filed by two servicemen in Iraq and Kuwait to allow them more time to vote.

“Voter suppression” is the effort being made by both parties to discourage people from voting if they don’t support their candidate. And major questions remain unanswered regarding electronic balloting, hanging chads, and other voting issues.

Rhetoric is extreme. President Bush and Senator Kerry are being castigated and caricatured in ways more destructive and slanderous than I can remember ever seeing in America. I won’t repeat some of the slander I’ve heard, but I know you’ve heard it, too.

But Jesus was clear: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). When cracks appear in the foundation, the entire structure is in danger of collapse.

So we must pray for the unity of our nation. Specifically, we must pray:

That the election process will be completed without fraud or disunity.

That the results will be determinative enough to help the nation move forward.

That our people will support whoever is elected, whatever the outcome.

That we will find ways to move forward as “one nation.”

Pray for Americans to be “under God”

How can such unity be achieved? By removing the comma and joining the phrases: “one nation under God.” By praying for Americans to be “under God.” The closer we get to him, the closer we get to each other.

Our founders knew that we need a vertical dimension to make the horizontal work; that we need the spiritual to achieve the relational.

George Washington added the pledge, “So help me God” to his inaugural oath, and later said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

William Penn, founder and governor of the Pennsylvania colony, said, “If we will not be governed by God, we will be ruled by tyrants.”

Benjamin Franklin, by no means a believing Christian, said, “A nation of well-informed men who have been taught to know the price of the rights which God has given them, cannot be enslaved.”

And Thomas Jefferson, a deist who did not accept the miraculous or the divinity of Jesus Christ, said, “The Bible is the cornerstone of liberty; therefore students’ perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.”

Am I suggesting that America is or should be a “Christian” nation? Absolutely not. There is not one reference to God in the Constitution. We should not become a Christian nation any more than we should become a Muslim nation. We cannot compel any person to faith in Jesus Christ, or vote our Lord into office. That’s the Taliban’s vision for a country, not the biblical worldview.

We are not to pray that our nation become Christian, but that our people become Christians.

We are to pray that we be the light of the world Jesus called us to be (Matthew 5:14-16), reflecting Jesus to our dark world. We are the Moon to the Son. The Moon produces no light of its own; “moonlight” is simply sunlight reflected. The lunar eclipse of Wednesday night happened because the Earth got between the Moon and the Sun. We are to pray that nothing eclipse our witness in reflecting the Son to our nation and world.

We are to pray during this unified missions emphasis that our money, our witness, our work, and our prayers help expand the Kingdom of God on earth. That our church helps people follow Jesus; that we know that we know him.

We are to pray that our motto, “In God We Trust,” becomes real for our families, friends, neighbors, and fellow Americans. And then we are to do all we can to answer that prayer.


To the degree that we are “one nation under God,” with no comma between, to that degree we will be “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” So let us pray, today and this week. Many of us will fast and pray for America—I invite you to join us. Take some time Tuesday specifically to kneel and pray. Pray for Americans to be “one nation,” to be united no matter the outcome of this election. A house divided cannot stand. And pray for us to be one nation “under God,” surrendered to his word and his will in our souls and our lives.

As you pray, answer your prayer personally.

Are you “one nation” with your fellow Americans today? Have you been slandering a candidate or a fellow citizen? Has your attitude been godly? Is there a relationship you must restore?

Are you “under God” today? Is your life fully surrendered to Jesus as Lord? Can he use your time, talents, and treasure as he wishes? Do you belong to him?

The London Times asked G. K. Chesterton and other well-known writers to submit essays on the topic, “what’s wrong with the world.” Chesterton’s essay: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

Are you?

The Worst Words In All The Bible

The Worst Words in All the Bible

Matthew 7:21-23

Dr. Jim Denison

Janet has been out of town this week at a writer’s conference, so I’ve been cooking. So far we’ve had Italian, Chinese, and Mexican—whatever we can order in or eat out. Janet used to cook and stock the refrigerator if she was going to be gone, with sticky notes telling me how long to heat up everything. But when she returned, everything was precisely where she left it. She’s learned better.

She’s lucky if I’ve brought in the mail once or twice, and maybe even run the dishwasher. I am domestically challenged. She married me out of pity, and not much has changed.

If you don’t know how to do something, it’s important that you know someone who does. Someone who can fix your roof or your car, someone who can perform your surgery or calculate your taxes.

These days we’re working with the subject, “Knowing That You Know.” We’re learning how to be sure that we know God and that he knows us. Because none of us knows how to get to heaven. None of us knows how to get our sins forgiven, our hearts transformed, our lives filled with joy and peace and purpose. If we think we can do all that ourselves, today’s text is for us.

So far we’ve learned what salvation is. Today we’ll learn what it is not. And why the subject is crucial beyond all description.

Don’t trust in right words

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (v. 21).

“Lord” translates kurios, the Greek word for “master.” The Romans required their subjects to bow the knee before a bust of Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord,” “Caesar kuriou.” Jesus’ followers refused, saying instead, “Jesus is Lord,” “Jesu kuriou.”

To say it twice is to give the word intensity. The Jews didn’t use superlatives like we do—they repeated words for emphasis. The idea here is “really Lord” or “Lord of Lords.”

“Not everyone” shows that some who say this will enter the kingdom of heaven.

To say that Jesus is your Lord is to say that he is your Master, your Savior and King. This is precisely the profession of faith we make at baptism: “Jesus is my Lord.”

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13, quoting Joel 2:32). But “call on” means more than words—it reflects trust, commitment, reliance.

And not everyone who uses these words means them like that. Not everyone who knows the right words knows the right Lord. If you say you’re a Rotarian, you probably are. If you say that you support President Bush or Senator Kerry, you probably do. If you say you’re a Christian, you may or may not be.

In our culture, a “Christian” is a good person who believes in God. Most Americans don’t even know that there’s more to the term than that. Most don’t even know that they need to ask Jesus to forgive their sins and become their Savior and Lord. Most use “Christian” without any concept of its biblical meaning.

C. S. Lewis likens the word to “gentleman.” At one time, “gentleman” referred specifically to a man who was part of the landed gentry, a landowner who occupied a specific place in society. But over time the word evolved to mean a person who acts as a “gentleman” once did, who conducts himself with decorum and dignity. And now the word applies to everyone, whether we own land or not. It’s gone from nobility to bathroom doors.

In the same way, “Christian” originally meant “little Christ,” one who follows and imitates Jesus. It was a pejorative term, and was applied only to those who had experienced a personal relationship with Jesus.

Today “Christian” is an ethical term which refers to good people who believe in God. So nearly everyone says that the word applies to them. In that sense, nearly everyone in America calls Jesus “Lord, Lord.”

Raise your hand if you say you’re a Christian. Now be warned—this text may be about you.

Don’t trust in right works

Next Jesus lists the two most persuasive religious actions a person could perform in his day: prophecy and miracles. First, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?”

Again the right words, “Lord, Lord.”

For the right purpose: “in your name.”

“Prophesy” in the Bible doesn’t mean to foretell the future so much as it means to forth tell the word of God.

Jesus means here what we would call “preaching.” He’s referring to people like me—a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, a seminary or college professor, a spiritual writer, someone who communicated his word through their words. He’s warning us that we can speak his words in his name, and not know him. Just because I’m your pastor, speaking these words to you today, don’t mean I know him.

A new pastor saw a meeting at his church one evening. He asked a man walking toward the sanctuary what it was about. The man said, “I’m just a visitor, but I came at the invitation of a friend. They’re meeting to pray for the spiritual conversion of their new pastor.” He came into the meeting, and gave his heart to Christ.

Not everyone who preaches or teaches God’s word knows God.

Jesus continues: “…and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?”

Again, “in your name,” for his glory and credit. “Drive out demons” refers to exorcism of evil spirits. “Perform many miracles” means just what it says—healings and unexplainable physical phenomena.

Apparently it’s possible to drive out demons without knowing Jesus. Apparently it’s possible to be involved in miraculous healings and works without knowing Jesus. I could be an exorcist or a faith healer without knowing Jesus. I could lead the lost to Christ, build great churches, do great mission work, lead great benevolent and Christian institutions, but not know Jesus.

When John Wesley first came to America as a missionary, he failed miserably. On his return to England he complained to himself, “I came to convert the Indians, but oh, Lord, who will convert me?” It’s possible to speak all the right words and do all the right works, and not know Jesus.

So apparently it’s not enough to do religious works. It’s not enough that our parents were religious, or our other family members, or our friends. It’s not enough that we grew up in the church, or have “always been a Christian.”

“Many” will say this to him on “that day.” Many will make this mistake, and have it revealed on the Judgment Day.

The Bible teaches, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Revelation 20 says that on that day, God will open the “book of works” to show us that none of us has earned heaven. Then he’ll open the “book of life” which records those who know Jesus and are known by him. With this result: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (v. 15).

Trust in the One who knows you

So don’t trust in right words or right works. It’s not enough to know the hymns and the vernacular, to come to church and do religious works. Jesus warned us that he would have to say to those who trusted in words and works: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (v. 23).

“Knew” means a personal, intimate relationship. It’s not enough to say that we know him—he must say that he knows us. You would know George Bush or John Kerry if they walked into the sanctuary—would they know you?

What does it take for him to “know” us? We must “do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (v. 21). Is this works righteousness? Right words and right works?

“My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).

“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).

“This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23).

Then we will hear the best words in all the Bible: “Well done, good and faithful servant…Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21).

Then we will know that we know him, not because of our words or works but because of his word and his works. Our assurance is not based on what we can do but on what he has done.

Jesus promised, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). We don’t have to hold onto him—he’s holding onto us.

He knows us, and will never forget us: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 1:14).

“The man who loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3).

“God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his'” (2 Timothy 2:19).

Once he “knows” us, he never forgets us in all of eternity. He’ll remember us on the day of judgment. He’ll call us by name. And he’ll welcome us home.


Why is it so crucial that we know that we know him and that he knows us? Because this is the only way to eternal life. Jesus was adamant and blunt: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). “No one,” no exceptions. If Jesus doesn’t know you, you won’t get in. You can claim that you know him, but he had better know you.

One of the great perks of pastoring in Atlanta was getting tickets to the Masters each year. The former governor of Georgia, Carl Sanders, was kind enough to arrange this remarkable experience. It’s like watching golf played in church—everything is hushed and almost “holy.”

Jeff Byrd, our missions minister, was the Executive Pastor of our church in Atlanta, and he and I would go to the tournament together. One year Carl let us use the clubhouse passes belonging to his daughter and her husband. I got to be David Botts; Jeff had to be Betty Botts. The guards at the door let me in—I guess I looked like a David Botts. But they wouldn’t let Jeff in—he resembled no Betty Botts they’d ever met. It didn’t matter that we said we knew the governor. The guards had to know that he knew us. And we couldn’t arrange that, so we got stopped at the gate.

Don’t get stopped at the gate. Does Jesus know you? Are you trusting in your words, the fact that you say you’re a Christian? Are you trusting in your works—your church attendance, your good deeds, your religious actions? Millions of Americans are. Don’t be one. The worst words in all the Bible are, “I never knew you.” Don’t take the chance that he’ll say them to you.