2017 Moderatorial Address
General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)
“This is the first and great commandment.” (Matthew 22:39)
Biblical Christianity is a God-exalting, man-abasing religion. Above all else, a God-centred focus characterises the true Church and distinguishes it from the deceptive man-centred focus of the world and counterfeit religion. In the words of Isaiah 44:6, “Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer, the Lord of hosts; I am the first and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.” This all-engrossing sight of God captivates the mind of the true Church and moulds her message – prompting a trumpet blast heard all around the world.
In our text, the Lord Jesus Christ provides a summary of the Ten Commandments. The first table of the Law (commandments 1-4) addresses our duty toward God, and the second table of the Law (commandments 5-10) specifies our duty toward man.
Some truths, once stated, become immediately obvious, but until they are stated, are often overlooked. Our text illustrates this point. Jesus inextricably ties together two truths: God must have first place in all things, and, therefore, the first table of the Law must have first priority. The first table provides the concrete content for the God-centred, God-magnifying focus so indispensable to the testimony of our denomination, the well-being of the Church-at-large and our witness to the wayward world.
So the title of our address, “First Things First”, is another way of stating, “First Table First”, an affirmation that the first priority in the home, in the church and in the nation must be our duty toward the Triune God. God's glory and God's worship are of supreme importance, far above and beyond all else.
Each generation faces the challenge of providing good answers to pressing questions. For example, in the current cultural climate the media often establish the questions, and members of society divide along two or more lines, representing answers from the spectrum of socially conservative to liberal. Few people, however, stop to notice that perhaps we are asking the wrong questions, and not just settling for inadequate answers. Who gets to determine the most important questions, much less the best answers to those questions? Confusion abounds whenever we become obsessed with finding the best answers, while failing to realise that we have not begun to grapple with the right questions. I would propose that one of the most pressing questions before us is this: What are our chief obligations as individuals, as the Church and as nations? Jesus answers that question in our text.
I. The Place of the First Table
The Jews had compiled and categorised all the Old Testament laws. They identified 613 discrete laws and classified them on a graded scale from lesser to greater. This infatuation with categorising the law led to heated theological debates, which provides the background for the Pharisee's question in verse 36, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus responded by summarising the moral law under two heads – love God and love your neighbour, and he answered the Pharisee's question by asserting that loving God is the first and great commandment. He does not mean “first” in chronology or first on a list. He says “first and great” to establish that it is “first” in importance. It is supreme. God is first; our duty to God is first; our love for God is first. It is first God then man.
It must be so. Because God, as God, is chiefly interested in the promotion and preservation of his own glory. He wove all four commandments into a tapestry that displays his majesty and serves as a transcript of his holiness. The Lord clearly considers the first table to be of first importance. As divine law, the first table represents the full authority of God himself, and in one sense, they are all connected to the worship of God and matters that flow from that worship. The first commandment addresses who we are to worship. The second commandment regulates what we are to do in worship. The third commandment limits how we are to approach God in worship. The fourth commandment specifies when we are to worship.
We must connect the place of the first table to the place belonging to God himself. The preface to the Ten Commandments opens with “I am the LORD thy God.” In a parallel passage to our text, we find these additional words from the lips of our Lord, “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God...” (Mark 12:29). The grandeur of God undergirds the gravity of the first table, the mandates guarding his glory.
We hear much talk about human rights today: civil rights, women's rights, employee rights and so on. But the Christian's primary concern pertains to God's sovereign rights, God's prerogatives. In the 17th century our Scottish Presbyterian forebearers shouldered sacrifices and suffered bloodshed.
For what were they contending? In their words: the “crown rights of King Jesus.” They were not preoccupied with their own rights – in fact, they forsook those rights to live on the moors and in caves while being hunted and harried. By way of contrast, does their commitment reflect a blind spot in the present generation? I propose that the Church-at-large is in danger of misplaced priorities. What we need is not a tweak to the cosmetics but a colossal overhaul, a paradigm shift. Previous generations were supremely concerned with God's prerogatives. Surely, that needs to be reasserted in our own day.
Think about your own experience. If you are crossed, you are aroused, but when God is crossed, are you not tempted to relative indifference? If a man's name is ruined, he will exert great vigour to defend himself, but if someone blasphemes God's name, hardly an eye is batted. When you waste someone's time, they are indignant, but if you steal God's time and desecrate his day, it is deemed of little significance. This reflects skewed priorities, and even the Church has fallen prey to this change in mindset. We must put God's interests before our neighbour's concerns. In fact, we cannot love our neighbour rightly unless we love God supremely. While no command of God should be considered small, the first table of the law is the greatest because there the object of those commandments – the Sovereign God – is most directly exalted.
We must love God, delight in God, more than anything and anyone else. Augustine described nicely this summary of God's Law (God first; man second) when he said, “if you understand the priority of loving God first, it is like a needle to thread; it draws all after it.” In other words, we must think rightly about the relationship of first things and second things. One cannot obtain second things by putting them first. If one puts second things first, one will get neither the first things nor the second things. But if one puts first things first, then one secures both first things and second things. When one gives the first table first place, then all the blessings of the second table follow with it. I am not undervaluing the importance of the second table, far from it. Rather I am advocating an order that will best preserve the ethic of the second table. You see this illustrated in the argument throughout First John. If you love God, you will love your brother. If you do not love your brother, you do not love God. Loving God first results in loving your brother best.
So first of all, we see the place of the first table. Jesus speaks elsewhere of the weightier matters of the law, and this belongs to that category.
II. The Priority of the First Table
God prioritises the first table in every arena. As one surveys the Old Testament, one discovers that idolatry is the prime sin that God confronts at every level of society. This is beyond dispute. In turning to the New Testament, one may fail to see, without some reflection, the predominant place given to addressing idolatry there as well. Upon investigation, we learn that every Old Testament judgment came as a result of transgressions of the first table. Likewise, every Old Testament revival and reformation resulted preeminently in a recovery of first table obligations in loving God.
The Protestant Reformation followed the same pattern. Calvin insisted, “If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence among us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and secondly, the source from which salvation is to be obtained.” The gospel serves as a means to the end of worship. Evangelism will cease in heaven, but pure worship will endure for eternity. The present generation has confused and inverted biblical priorities.
Why do I say that God prioritises the first table in every arena? Because God reinforces this truth from the smallest family to the biggest nation.
In the family. Notice Jacob's concern to uphold the first table by removing idolatry from his household. Genesis 35:2-4, “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: And let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.” Likewise, Joshua demands, “Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood...as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14,15). The Apostle John concludes his first epistle with this crescendo: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
In the church. The Lord built the bulk of the Old Testament around the display of God's supremacy through the divinely prescribed structures of his Church and the purity of his ordained worship. When Jesus rebuked the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 2-3), much of that rebuke related to their departures from the first table. They had left their first love. Today, when the average believer moves to a new location, how often do they choose a church by asking, “Does this congregation give first priority to the first table? Do they prize love for God, duty to God, the glory of God? Is God's name hallowed? Is idolatry spurned? Is purity of worship practiced? Is the Sabbath sanctified? Is there zeal for the holiness of God? Do they discipline for first table or only second table violations? Or are God's concerns considered secondary, tertiary and peripheral? Peter proclaims, “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God” (1 Peter 4:17).
In the nation. The Old Testament enumerates a succession of magistrates who turned the nation back to the Lord by pushing the first table to first place. King Asa purged idolatry (2 Chron. 15:8-16). Jehoshaphat prepared his heart to seek the Lord and removed the groves (2 Chron. 19:3). Hezekiah went even further by sweeping out of the land the high places, images and groves and purifying the worship of God and restoring the God-ordained ordinances of Passover and the lawful priests (2 Chron. 29-20). After the repentance of Manasseh, he removed false gods and false altars from the land (2 Chron. 33:15,16). Josiah pursued the most thorough recovery of the first table (2 Chron. 34-35).
These magistrates knew that their first priority was God's rights, God's prerogatives, God's glory, God's name, God's worship (cf., Deut. 13, 17; Lev. 20). Deuteronomy 13 outlines the magistrate's responsibility to the first table. Notice how it ties this responsibility to our love for God, using similar words to Jesus in our text. Deuteronomy 13:3, “Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” So Romans 13 teaches that the Gentile magistrate is to be a servant of Christ, and he must “kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way...” (Ps. 2:12). Every magistrate and every nation must prioritise professing, promoting and protecting the true religion. Their duty to God comes first.
Now if you were to ask most Christians inhabiting western nations what they see as the most important societal issues, they may say abortion (6th commandment), same-sex marriage (7th commandment), unlawful taxes (8th commandment), dishonest magistrates (9th commandment), or crass materialism (10th commandment). These are all second table issues. In assessing our politicians, how much weight is given to their view of idolatry, the promotion of false religion, public blasphemy or Sabbath desecration? The response from most people would be (and it is understandable): “We are way past that; those are not relevant issues in the contemporary world. We have to fight for what we can achieve.”
With all due respect, who in the world do we think we are to dispose of God's rights? We do not have the power or authority to surrender such things on the altar of what we deem humanly possible. As officers in the Free Church, we vow to uphold the establishment principle, though we cannot now enjoy the benefits of its implementation. Let us never consider it irrelevant. It provides an answer to some of the most pressing questions in the world before us. Do not misunderstand me. Abortion and same-sex marriage are evil and horrific – we must stand against them on all fronts. But if they assume the first place in our priorities, and if we fail to repent over our duties toward God, then we may be busily rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Let me reinforce this point. What is the source of the downfall of the now post-Christian, western countries? For many, the steep descent seems sudden. The senseless torture and mutilation of the unborn and sexual perversity would have been unthinkable a short time ago. The answer is that we have been pseudo-religious countries for too long, preoccupied exclusively with a man-centred focus on our second table rights. We have winked at first table prohibitions as society has steadily consumed its moral foundations, namely, the cultural veneer of Christian orthodoxy. We dropped our obligations to God long ago, failing to care for his prerogatives. We refused to contend for and uphold God's rights, and now he has taken away our protections by removing the restraints of the second table. These connections can be traced all through the Old Testament, but allow me to show it to you from the New Testament. Romans 1:21-23 reads, “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.” In other words, they abandoned the first table. Now notice the causal connection in the next words. “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lust of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves.” Now we see it again in what follows. “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.” Again, this is first table, and note again the causal connection in the next words. “For this cause, God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature...” In short, when we forsake God's interests, he will remove the restraints that pertain to our interests. When men abandon the first table, God gives them over to the sins of the second table.
Think of the emotional response to instances of adultery in both church and state. Why do we observe such strength of feeling to violations of the second table in comparison to infractions of the first table? The answer includes at least two factors. First, we find a man-centred focus. These issues centre on me: my respect, my life, my possessions, my well-being. Second, there is a self-righteous element. It is easier to point out the overt second table failings of others than to face how thoroughly and regularly we are exposed for our dismal duties in loving God.
Priorities are what we practise, not what we print on paper, and that brings us to our final point.
III. The Practice of the First Table
If one wishes to identify true priorities, it would suffice to merely survey past and present decisions, both great and small. A searching exercise! The first table provides the content for what it means to love God supremely. The pursuit and passion for the glory of God and the worship of God must dominate the Christian life and outlook. This is our chief end, our primary purpose in life.
Jesus sets this truth within an experimental framework. He summarises the first table in two words: Love God – and he reinforces this by calling for comprehensive love. Love the Lord with your whole being, all your faculties and all your fervour. We must love him first and love him most. God, the object of our love, shines as infinitely and eternally glorious. Our obedience flows from that love: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). We must begin on the inside and work to the outside, from our hearts to our actions. This necessitates spiritual heart surgery. When love waxes cold, zeal for God's glory wanes. Conversely, wherever one finds intense and passionate love for God, one also observes the practice of all that is related to God's interests. So we must begin by cultivating love for God as our chief ambition. The Psalmist sings, “O love the Lord, all ye his saints” (Ps. 31:23). We must love God more than men, more than ourselves. What does this mean? It means, for instance, that the blasphemy of God's name surpasses the importance of money stolen out of my pocket. The removal of idolatry from Church and state exceeds the weight of our personal honour. We can turn to the Larger Catechism to instruct us on hating, loathing and abhorring the sins forbidden in the first table of the law and to arouse our reverence for God, joy in God, delight in God and obedience to God. We must not allow the world to inform us of God's mind and will. Only he determines the matters of greatest importance. He establishes the agenda, poses the questions and supplies the answers. Our ignorance, unbelief and pride must be cured by the knowledge and fear of God.
To love God supremely means that infrequent communion with God in our practice must be dismissed as deplorable. The worship of God is the pivotal force in framing the piety of his people. It is the pivotal force in the world. The angels are arrested in flight and watch in wonder. The crave for the sight and knowledge of God alone will suffice. In the words of Moses, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory” (Ex. 33:18), and the words of David, “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after...to behold the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4), or the words of Paul, “...I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord...That I may know him” (Phil. 3:8,10). Seeing the Lord results in a passionate pursuit of the Lord's glory. It is the recovery of this mentality that drove men to choose martyrdom over relinquishing even one of Christ's crown rights.
To love God supremely means we establish first things first within the family. Husbands and wives and parents and children give the Lord their unqualified allegiance and grant everyone and everything else a secondary place. When we devote the first-fruits of our lives to the Lord, family members receive a more precious and fruitful place than they would have otherwise. In our text, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 where God commands fathers to inculcate love for Jehovah in the instruction of children, from morning to night. Children must be taught to cultivate a revulsion, an internal fear, to idolatry and all that defames God, as the greatest evil in the world. We must be indignant as long as idols are kept, protected, promoted and utilised, knowing that their presence provokes the jealousy of God.
To love God supremely means that we acknowledge him as Lord of time. God has written his name on the first day of every week, claiming it as his own. The whole day is the Lord's Day. Likewise, we must employ our resources, talents, gifts and callings – which all come from God – first and foremost for his glory and within the confines of his prescriptions.
True fear of God instils pathos for putting first things first. The transcendent majesty of God, the pervasive presence of God and the unalterable demands of God loom large in our minds. One could not have lived in an Old Testament family, a New Testament family, or even a Post-Reformation family without thinking along these lines. Nothing trumps whatever defames and dishonours the matchless glory of our God. True religion is God-centred and God-conscious.
Our generation needs a recovery of first things first, first table first, putting God first in all things – in our families, in our congregations, and in our nations. Do not underestimate the role God has given to our Church by measuring it by worldly standards of greatness. Our numbers may be small, but our message conveys the claims of a great God. A trumpet blast only requires a single burst of air.
Whatever else we do, or fail to do, let us never cease to exalt his name, submit to his authority, and contend for the interests of his glory. In drawing our last breath, let our posture be such that we are still pointing heavenward in earnest affirmation that our God reigns as the King of glory, the Lord of hosts, the Holy One of Israel, the Great I Am. “Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever” (Rev. 5:13). When we and our congregations are dead and gone, the Eternal One shall continue to shine as preeminent.
Loving the Lord thy God is the first and great commandment.