My challenge: This was the final sermon in a series on the Ten Commandments from Deuteronomy 4-6. I wanted to explain the tenth commandment (5:21) in the context of 6:4-13 as a conclusion to the entire series.
The purpose of the entire series was to show how good and relevant these commandments are for us, since they are spoken to use by the Lord who has saved us out of slavery and is shaping us to be a people distinctly different from the world.
I needed to explain the meaning of "do not covet," which became part 2 of the sermon. I saw 4:4-13 as application, and I identified three distinct applications. These applications became part 3 of the sermon. But I needed to preface all that with the larger context, which also served as something of a conclusion to the entire series, and that became part 1 of the sermon.
One of the subtexts of part 1 was an on-going conversation in our congregation about understanding what it means to live freely within the sovereign grace of Christ. Throughout this series, we were wrestling to connect the dots from "I am the Lord who saved you; have no other gods," to the relational applications of these chapters of Deuteronomy. What does the Lord's character as sole Lord and Savior have to do with the way we relate to each other? I see the warning against coveting at the heart of the issue. In a sense, part 1 of the sermon is exposition of that tenth commandment. My objective was to show the relational relevance before we even got to the definition of "covet" in part 2.
In every sermon, I think through three developmental questions (thanks largely to Haddon Robinson's Biblical Preaching): (1) What does it mean? What do we need to have explained? (2) How can I accept it? What internal objections have to be addressed? and (3) What difference does it make? What is the Lord calling me to do?
I think through how the sermon answers those questions about this text for several different audiences in our congregation: the 10-year-old who expects to be disinterested; the 13-year-old who has significant questions but thinks nobody takes him seriously; the college student whose faith in Christ is challenged every day; the parent who is struggling to teach a child wisdom; the people in midlife who have found life disappointing and disorienting; the senior adult who is wondering how her life matters in this season. We're on a university campus, and I don't want to talk down to people, but I also have to resist being too abstract.
This series was heavy on the second question, and I have to come up with illustrations that brought to light the relational significance of our Savior instructing us on how to relate to him and to each other. The big idea of this sermon feels a bit cumbersome at first; my hope is that by the end, a "relationship of interactive blessing" with the Lord is what we welcome and truly desire. This message led to several conversations with people who are craving relational connections and wanting to know how to pursue them in a way that is fully engaged in Christ.
Introduction: What's the purpose of the Ten Commandments?
My wife Lorie and I first found out that we were very interested in each other in the spring of my last year in college. But by summer, Lorie was on a music and missions tour to Japan and then to California. I had been to Europe and back and was working at a camp way up in the Minnesota Northwoods. This was in the dark ages, way before we had cell phones or email. I had to communicate with Lorie by writing words on paper and sending them by the U.S. postal service. I had to time the letters so that they would be at the right location when Lorie got there.
In those letters I poured out my innermost self. I told Lorie what I was reading, what I was wrestling with, my questions about where the Lord was leading me, how I wished I could know her perspective on many personal thoughts I did not feel free to share with anyone else in the world. It was wonderful to have someone I could talk to like this.
In August, Lorie got back to her home in Minneapolis. I couldn't wait to talk with her, and I was finally able to phone her. She began the conversation by saying she needed to know if I was still interested in her. My heart sank to the darkest part of my gut. Still interested? Hadn't she received my letters? Yes, she had received all of them. But they didn't seem very … well, romantic. And she had not been able to talk with me about it because we had been so far apart.
Thirty or 40 years later, Lorie and I are still working on our communication. But I often remember the crushing feeling of Lorie's question: Am I still interested in her? I think of that feeling when someone reads the Bible and then questions whether God loves us. I imagine the Lord saying, "Are you kidding me? The whole story is about the lengths I have gone to in order to bring you joyfully into my arms. What do you mean, Do I really love you?"
How can we not notice how much the Lord has told us about himself, how he has poured out his heart to us, how grievous it is when we reject him, how he laid down his life for us, how he celebrates when we stop rejecting him and are reconciled, how joyful it will be when we see each other face to face? How can we not hear his love?
Well, one reason is that we pull his words out of context. The context is all that he has already done and said about this relationship. But we read the Bible as if it were an encyclopedia. We look up specific topics and expect to understand them without hearing them from our loving Savior. We make that mistake when we read the Ten Commandments and ignore the fact that someone spoke them to us. They are not like rules posted at the swimming pool: "No glass containers. No running. No diving. No unnecessary wetness …." That's not the context of the Ten Commandments. Someone spoke them to us: the same someone who saved us out of oppression and slavery.
That someone is the same God who spoke into being the light that distinguishes more diverse colors that we have names to give them. He spoke into being stars scattered in fascinating patterns across the universe so vast that we have yet to find the edge of it. He spoke into that universe a world with the exact combination of motion, light, heat, and elements to support not only one form of life, but thousands upon thousands of plant, animal, and microbial life forms. To one culminating life form God spoke the nature to understand words and to use these distinct sounds to speak back to God in ideas far too complex to be conveyed in objects and gestures.
We know this because the Lord has told us, so we know also that communication with him is elementary to what it means to be man and woman, rather than mere beast. But we are so broken that we read the Ten Commandments and miss the most important message there: that the One who designed and made us is speaking to us. He uses words we can understand, and with those words he calls us to interact meaningfully with him. It's remarkable that we read his words without considering the amazingly relational purpose for which they are spoken. God speaks to us for a mutual relationship of interactive blessing.
What language describes a relationship with the Savior?
Language is not an optional accessory. It is what enables us to think clearly. Perhaps the greatest value in studying another language is that it gives us additional vocabulary, new words by which to understand life. All language is the organization of ideas, so additional languages enable us to have additional ideas.
For example, studying Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, showed me one of the weaknesses of today's English. If grammar talk puts you to sleep, try to stay with me for a moment, because, I promise you, this is relevant. In English, we speak in the active voice or the passive voice. The active voice describes the one who initiates an action that goes to something else. The passive voice describes the one who receives the action. If Penelope passed the pecan pie to Peter, Penelope is the one actively passing the pecan pie. If Peter was pampered by Penelope, Peter is passively receiving the action of Penelope. Active describes what you do; passive describes what is done to you.
But Koine Greek uses a third voice, called the middle voice, which is neither exclusively active nor passive. Since English doesn't really have a middle voice, we struggle to translate not only the Greek sentences but also the New Testament ideas. The middle voice can describe a person's participation in an action that someone else initiated. If I joined Penelope in passing out pecan pie, I might use the middle voice. But since we don't really have a middle voice in English, the idea of participating in something that someone else was already doing doesn't fit as easily into the way we think. Our language itself forces us into either-or thinking, leaving it difficult to understand the idea of being brought into participation (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, pp 102ff.)
And this gets to some of our difficulty in understanding the relationship with God which the Bible describes. Does God work the life of faith in us? Or do we work out the life of faith by doing what he tells us? We're asking who's active, who's passive. Some people argue that it is all God's work, which it is, but that leaves us thinking that we are completely passive, unable to do a thing. Are we mere energy cells plugged into the Matrix? If that were true, why does the Lord keep speaking to us, calling us? After saving us, why give us all these instructions on how to life the free life?
Other people argue that God only invites, but the response is all up to us, as if we were active while God sat passively, drumming his fingers and waiting for us to get on with it. But in the Bible, God is never passively waiting. He is actively sustaining every part of the cosmos. He is not a detached observer. He speaks to his creation.
So do we initiate anything, or does everything simply happen to us? What if those are not the only options? What if neither of those accurately describes the relationship into which God calls us? What if we need a middle voice in which to understand our participation in something God began and has been doing all along? What if God is sovereignly working in all of it to bring it to creative, redemptive fulfillment, and he calls us into involved, interactive participation in what he is doing? Jesus said he is the vine, and we are the branches. Apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5). And there is a corollary: With him we cannot do nothing. Or, as Philippians 4:13 puts it, "I can do all things through him who gives me strength."
We're not talking about self-righteousness. Christ is our righteousness, and apart from Christ, we will never be righteous, we will never know righteousness, and we will never experience the glory of God. We don't follow Christ's directions in order to make ourselves righteous apart from him. We follow his directions because he calls us to be with him, interactive participants in a life he is giving. God speaks to us for a mutual relationship of interactive blessing.
What is the language of interactive blessing?
The biblical term for interactive blessing is prayer. We have to understand what that means, but to do that we have to clear away some of the clutter of false impressions. First, prayer is not incantation. We talk about "saying prayers" as if the activity gave us some magical power to make things happen. That's not the way the Bible uses the term. Saying a prayer is useless unless you're truly in a mutual relationship with the Lord. Mutual means the relationship involves sharing. Your relationship with God is not a relationship of equals, but if you know him as the Lord and Savior he is, then you are brought into the relationship as a participant. Communication is both ways: God speaks through his words, and you respond to his words. You don't merely say prayers.
So by mutual I mean that God knows you, his words speak to you, and he tells you of the love and honor he has for you, and you know him and give back to him the love and honor of embracing his grace to you. Prayer expresses a mutual relationship.
Second, because prayer is mutual participation in a relationship with God, prayer is not merely making a speech. It is two-way communication. The Lord speaks and we respond to what he says. Biblical prayer is interactive. Biblical prayer is not merely speaking my mind. The Lord already knows everything I think. Prayer includes calling to mind what we need to know about God as it applies to our needs.
You can see this in the Psalms. The Psalms are our prayer manual. They teach us how to talk with God. What they call to mind about God is at least as important as what needs the Psalmists bring to God. So Biblical prayer is responsive to what God has already revealed about himself, his purposes, and his ways. The Lord reveals, and we respond. Prayer is interactive.
Third, prayer is not merely complaining. We do not pray to an unknown god. We pray to the Lord who has already revealed himself as sovereign Savior. His eternal plans are good, and he works good through every situation. So Biblical prayer calls to mind what God has already revealed. That kind of prayer blesses God. "Bless the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits" (Psalm 103:2).
To bless is to speak good of someone. When we trust the Lord, and we call to mind the assurance of his goodness, then our response blesses the Lord. The infinite, wise Creator blesses us by speaking good to us, as he spoke good into existence in Genesis 1; we bless him in return by agreeing that his gifts and his ways are good forever. Prayer is blessing the Lord.
So a mutual relationship of interactive blessing with the Lord is expressed through prayer that takes in what he reveals, responds to his revelation, and expresses both our need and our trust in his assuring goodness. Love the assurance he gives. God speaks to us for a mutual relationship of interactive blessing.
In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches us to pray: "Our Father in heaven, hallow your name." That means: Creator of all, make yourself known as the Brilliant Creator, Wise Judge, and Loving Savior you really are. Real living includes the desire to know God not as we wish he was, but as he really is. "Your kingdom come." Real living includes a desire to experience his ideally beneficial Lordship. Not only do we desire to know the real God, but we also desire to live in a true relationship with him: He is King, and I am his steward. "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." That's what we're all dying for—for his good purposes to be experienced here as they always are in heaven. I want more of heaven on earth, so I want to trust his "good, pleasing, and complete will" (Romans 12:2). That defines the purpose of our lives: to experience his good will on earth. That prayer is describing what we really need: We really need God's eternal goodness to be revealed. We really need his loving-kindness to reign. We really need his will to be done here as it is in heaven. That's what we're dying for.
We desire far less, but the true God will not settle for giving us less. He wants to bring us to his banquet hall and share food and healing and love and celebration with us—and we cower outside the door like life-drained drug addicts, praying, "I just need one more fix. Just let me have this one thing, and I won't bother you again." As addicts, we can't see reality. We're enslaved to what we think we need. But in a real relationship with our Maker, we are interactive participants in a mutual relationship of interactive blessing, knowing him, knowing our relationship, desiring his will. That's what the Bible means by eternal life.
God initiates it. He brings us into it. And he does not leave us uninvolved, sitting in caves, waiting for the world to end. Eternal life is unbroken by physical death, because it is life received in unbroken relationship with the Life-Giver through trusting his assurance. Existence without that loving relationship is not real living; it is a form of death. That's why Ephesians 2:1 says that to be in sin is to be dead. Genesis 3 shows it: As soon as we separate ourselves from the love relationship with the Creator, we are burning the bridge that keeps us interacting in life, which comes through that relationship. When we deny a true relationship with our Creator, then we refuse to participate in his life. We make ourselves rival lords, and we fight to set up rival kingdoms. We make God an enemy, and we take a defensive posture against him.
What happens when we covet?
Jesus says all the Law and the Prophets depend on loving the Lord and loving your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). The Ten Commandments are not quaint, blue laws to visit in a museum. And they are not merits for making us self-righteous. Instead, they call us into participation in the relationships which the Lord is already giving.
James 4:1-2 describes what happens when we break relationships over what we think we want: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battles within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God." Broken relationships happen because we covet, James says. We want what we don't have, and instead of going to God as he teaches us to, we attack others. Relationships sour because we covet.
By contrast, what does James say just before that? "The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, fully of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness" (James 3:17-18). God speaks to us for a mutual relationship of interactive blessing. And we break relationships—with God and with others—because we covet. So the tenth commandment is, "Do not covet" (Deuteronomy 5:21).
What does it mean to covet?
Our culture is so saturated with coveting we don't even use the word anymore. To covet is to want what the Lord has not given you—and to want it so much that you will damage your relationships with him and with others. We see coveting in the sin that led to all sin: Adam and Eve desired the forbidden fruit that they were willing to break their blessed relationship with the Lord to get it.
We see something we desire, and we see that we do not have it. That is not the problem. The problem begins when I start disbelieving what the loving Creator has said about it. I believe that he is lying to me. I believe that he is withholding something essential to my happiness—and I believe that his withholding it not because he loves me and wills what is best for me. Why would he withhold something that looks like it would be good for me? It must be that he is evil and determined to do me hard, or that he is incompetent and unable to do me good, so we assume. In either case, I have moved from loving interaction with my Creator to unhappiness, because I want something else more than I want loving interaction with God. The whole problem is that I believe something else will fulfill me and that God won't. That is coveting in a nutshell. Coveting is disbelieving the assurance of God. He calls us to rest in the assurance that he is true to his Word. We don't believe him.
How is coveting the essence of our problem?
The desire alone is not bad. Desiring what we don't have leads us to do all kinds of good things. Desire for what we don't have leads us to wisely manage the lands, and plant crops, and build homes, and spend quality time with people, and get an education, and share the gospel with the people we love. Desire for what we don't have can be good.
What makes desire coveting is when we desire something so much that we are willing to damage our relationship with God—which, in turn, leads to damaging our relationships with other people. This is how our problems began in Genesis 2-3: The Lord gave the man and the woman the run of paradise. "Enjoy the fruit of every tree," he said, "except one. Don't eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Trust me: You do not want the fruit of that tree. Leave that in my care."
The tree in the story is not just any tree. The description of that tree is essential to the message of the story: the knowledge of good and evil. What is the Lord talking about? Everything was good. The man and woman lived in happy interaction with the One who had given them all good things to enjoy. The knowledge of good and evil was no concern of theirs. They were better off without it. They did not need to experience the deadly fruit of that knowledge. What they needed was to continue in the on-going interaction with their Provider. The Lord was not setting a trap. He was not teasing them with something good in order to mock them and leave them lacking. He was telling them something essential. He had the full knowledge of good and evil, and it was vital that they trust him with it.
If they stopped trusting him, if they decided that kind of knowledge should be their domain, it would poison their relationships. Instead of walking in paradise with him, they would hide from him in fear that he would harm them. Instead of loving union with each other, they would start blaming and accusing. They would still be responsible to manage creation, but doing so would no longer be joyful; it would be painfully laborious. Having children—while still a part of the purpose for which they were made—would now be shot through with pain.
Disbelief of God's words darkened every activity made for their joy—their marriage, their family life, their occupations, and their experience of the world itself. They would now have great difficulty seeing the connection of all those things back to the loving Creator who designed them for eternal pleasure. Every part of it would be subjected to frustration. The root of all that grief was coveting. We are willing to sacrifice our relationship with God in order to get what we don't have—and all the misery of our lives stems from that. So the Lord says: Don't do it. Don't covet. Don't sacrifice your relationship with God in order to get what you don't have. It may taste sweet at first, but it will end in bitterness and death.
What has God done about the problem?
God has said: "You want to sacrifice me? I'll do it. I'll be sacrificed. I'll drink the bitter poison, the whole cup. You want to accuse me of not understanding your needs? Not anymore. I'll show you I've been there too. I will take all your rejection with me to the grave. I'll die the death you chose for yourself. Then I'll rise and show that it's finished. We'll make a new start, a resurrected relationship. I have redeemed you. I have redeemed my creation. I am making all things new. Are you going to join me, or are you going to stand there arguing?"
Our root issue is our distrust of our Creator and Lord, our willingness to sacrifice a good relationship with him in order to get something we want more. So he prefaces these commandments by saying, "Follow my words so that you can live" (Deuteronomy 4:1-2). Keep them central to your faith community. Teach them to the next generation. Then he says: I'm the God who saved you from slavery. Don't look for other gods to get you what you desire. Don't try to replace me with gods of your own design. I am what you need. Don't treat my name and my words as a mere formality. Spend quality time with me. You need to practice resting in me. I place other people in your life for your eternal good. Encourage them in encouraging my purposes in life. Don't ignore what I tell you about relationships. Don't destroy people. I create covenant relationships between a man and a woman for life-giving purposes. Don't abuse them. Don't take away things that I have entrusted to someone else. Don't undermine community relationships by what you say about people.
In all of this, the Lord is saying that misplaced desire causes all of those problems. Lack of love and trust in the Lord is the problem. Stop coveting, and listen to the Lord. Know him. Love him. Trust him.
Deuteronomy 6 tells us what to do with the Lord's words; it tells us to find our assurance in a trust relationship with the Lord: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts."
Hear. Listen to what God is saying. He does not speak merely so we can have information on file. God speaks in order for us to live in relation to him. It is not possible to live and do nothing. You are living and doing all the time. But it's not real life if you're disconnected from the Life-Giver. Live and do life with the Lord in a mutual relationship of interactive blessing.
The Lord is One. He is not many competing gods. He is the one and only God. He is not many competing ideas of God. He is all that he is—all that he reveals himself to be. He is the only Life-Giver, and there is no other that belongs in his place.
Love the Lord. You don't do love as a self-righteous act. You love with all your heart, following your relational commitment to him. You love with all your soul, entrusting every part of your being to him. You love with all your strength, as long as you have breath. You're not being scored on your performance. You're being eternally loved. Live in that love.
His words are to stay on your heart. Don't turn your back on them. Stay in conversation with him. You want to know him, don't you? You want to understand him. You want to be energized by the value of what he says. You want to live it. Find your assurance in him.
Deuteronomy 6:7 says, "Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." These words aren't for religious purposes. They're for living. God is speaking them, so don't ignore him. Allow him to stay in the conversation. As we invest in our children, the most important thing we want for them is a trust relationship with the real God and an expectation that his words make a life-giving difference in every part of our lives. Don't box the Lord into devotional time. Keep him in the sitting-around conversation, in the traveling conversation, in the bedtime and the getting-up conversation.
How are we going to do that if we're not thinking about what he says? How are we going to think about it if we're not paying attention to what he says? How are we going to learn to do that unless we spend time with people who already do it?
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Fear the Lord your God, serve him only, and take your oaths in his name.
We never start from scratch. We never begin with a blank slate. We are always beginning with resources the Lord provides. We don't birth ourselves; the Lord gives life and places us in times and places and relationships. Stunningly, we overlook that. We assume that the world owes us something, like the child who won't play Candyland unless the red card comes up on every turn. We don't even notice that the Lord has chosen to get down on the rug and play the game with us. Don't ignore the Lord, without whom you would have none of this.
What is the Lord doing in this place where he has brought me? God speaks to us for a mutual relationship of interactive blessing. So, verse 13 says, "Fear the Lord." That does not mean to hide from him. It means don't get so distracted by what you think you want that you become unconcerned about the most important relationship in your life. "Serve him only." If you're not doing it in relation to him, you're doing it for the wrong reason. Why has he brought you to this place? "Take your oaths in his name." Don't commit yourself to something without committing yourself to his character, his purposes in it.
Luke 17 records the time ten lepers called Jesus for help. Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests. That is how it would be verified that they were healed and be welcomed back into society. On the way, they realized that their affliction was gone. One of the ten immediately ran back to Jesus to bow to him in thanks. Jesus said, "Weren't there ten? Why is only one thanking me?"
Is Jesus being harsh? The other nine were doing exactly what Jesus had told them to do. No, Jesus is making a point. He has given something they had no right to expect. It wasn't even a probably outcome. It was an undeserved blessing. The Savior had done something extraordinary for them, and only one recognized what that was about. It was about a relationship with him. Jesus confirms this by saying, "Your faith has made you whole." Faith is a mutual relationship of interactive blessing. Without that relationship with the Lord, we are not whole. When we receive life we did not create, our relationship to the Provider should be obvious. But only one in ten returns to bless the Lord.
Thanksgiving isn't telling God something he doesn't know. Thanksgiving is reminding ourselves of his assurance. The Giver of every good gift has not withheld his Son from us. Why won't we trust him?
By my grace, certain cats live a fairly cushy life in my house. Snow season has arrived, the season when the cats see something falling from above and think they went to be out there in it. I tell them they don't, that they have it much better inside. I explain that I have their best interests in mind and that they won't like being out in the snow, because it is cold, and they aren't used to it and, eventually, it would kill them. But they sit there whining in such a pitiful tone that I, out of sheer distraction, let them out. In minutes they want back in. Then, minutes later, they again notice the snow falling and want back out.
These cats pray to me, their lord, for what they think they just have to have. It's fairly clear that they think I exist solely to give them what they desire. They covet the snow. And I explain to them: "You think you want out, but I know something you don't understand. Stay in here with me. And while you're at it, stop fighting over the water bowl. I promise plenty of water for you."
This is how the Lord talks to us. We like sheep, or cats, have gone astray. But God has taken on the iniquity of us all. Lord, grant us repentance from coveting what you haven't given, that we can more fully live the life you give. Give us faith to bless you and forget not all your benefits.
For Your Reflection
How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
David Shelley is the Senior Pastor at the Bethel Baptist Church in Greeley. Colorado.