January 12, 2023

How We Worship God Manuscript

SERMON TITLE: How We Worship God
Exodus 20:4-6 (ESV)
Robert Tansill

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Good morning, Gateway Church! I'm Robert Tansill, the Pastor of Care and Counseling. And, as always, it is a joy to worship with you. This morning, in our series on the Ten Commandments, we will be looking at the second commandment found in Exodus 20:4-6. And as we do, we want to think about the question, “How are we supposed to worship God?” Can we worship him however we want, or does he want and even expect to be worshiped in a particular way? 

Why is this question so important? Because, much like cultures in the past, people often decide how they want to worship God rather than worship him according to how he wants us to worship him. And as we look at our passage this morning, we will see that the command not to create idols and worship them is a small part of what God is actually saying in the second commandment. By telling us not to worship idols, he tells us how he wants us to worship him as the One True and Living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9).


In fact, as we think about why the author Moses is writing these commandments to the people of Israel, we have to remember where they are coming from and where they are going. They are coming from Egypt, where they have spent the last 430 years living in a culture that worshiped over 2000 gods (Exodus 12:40). And as Moses leads the people of Israel toward the promised land of Canaan (Exodus 6:4), there are at minimum 230 Canaanite gods in that culture. Why is this important?

Israel was very familiar with the idea of worshiping multiple gods. They experienced that for 430 years, and every culture around them kept reinforcing this idea. And this explains why, while Moses was on Mount Sinai meeting with God, the people of Israel, in their impatience, created a golden calf to worship (Exodus 32:4-5). Why a golden calf? Because they are trying to worship God but doing so in a way that represents the Egyptian god, Apis, a fertility god in the form of a calf. As one commentator said, “By building the calf, Israel is fashioning a new, false religion according to the pattern of what God revealed to them earlier on Mt. Sinai.” (Peter Enns, Exodus. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

So, how do we avoid making the same mistake? How do we avoid fashioning “a new, false religion” according to the pattern God revealed to us in the Ten Commandments? How do we worship God in the way he wants us to rather than how we want to? If you would, turn in your Bibles with me to Exodus 20:4-6 as Moses tells us. 

In Exodus 20:4-6, God, speaking through Moses, says this... 


Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Exodus 20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
Exodus 20:6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."
(Exodus 20:4-6 ESV)

As we listen to these words, keeping in mind that God himself is speaking through Moses regarding how he expects his people to live and worship, the first thing this passage teaches us is that…

Point 1: We Worship God as Spirit (v. 4)

I’ll never forget the day. My wife, Joy, and I were living outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where I was pastoring at the time, and a friend and I had decided we would take our sons to the Boston Science Museum. It was a fascinating place, but the one thing that left an indelible mark on me even today was this little sign in the museum that said there were billions and billions of galaxies. In fact, I walked right by the sign, but my friend didn’t. After quoting what the sign said, he said, “Huh, imagine that. Billions and billions of galaxies. That’s incredible, isn’t it?” At that moment, the thought hit me, “Oh my gosh, how big does that make God? If he created billions and billions of galaxies, how can I even begin comprehending his Being.” 

And this is why God says in verse 4, “You shall not make for yourself….” God is the one who defines how we are to worship him. Not us! And yet, how often do we fashion God into what we want him to be rather than who he really is? Sure, we aren’t chiseling an image of who we think God is out of rock, marble, or wood. But how often do we make God into something that reflects how we think about him or what we want him to be? God can’t be recreated or captured by our hands or imaginations. And yet we constantly try, don’t we? We use God to support all sorts of things that we believe in, Christian and non-Christian alike. And why do we do that? Because we aren’t clear on who God is.

In a document called the “Westminster Confession of Faith,” God is described like this, “There is only one living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a completely pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts... unchangeable, immensely vast, eternal, limitless, almighty, completely wise, completely holy, completely free, and completely absolute. He works everything according to the purpose of his own unchangeable and completely righteous will for his own glory. He is completely loving, gracious, merciful, and long-suffering. He overflows with goodness and truth. He forgives wickedness, transgression, and sin, and rewards those who diligently seek him. His judgments are completely just and awesome; he hates all sin and will not acquit the guilty.”

Folks, how do we even begin to wrap our little minds around that? How can we possibly comprehend a Being who is “infinite in being and perfection, a completely pure spirit, invisible, unchangeable, immensely vast, eternal, limitless, almighty, completely wise, completely holy, completely free, and completely absolute.” I’ll tell you how we do it. We do it by laying aside who he tells us he is in all his glory, and we refashion him or whittle him down into something that we can understand, control, and even manipulate for our glory. This is why God says in verse 4, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Since God is beyond our comprehension, we can only understand and worship him by relying on what he tells us about himself and living in that mystery and wonder. I can’t think of any other way to comprehend the One who created billions of galaxies and, at the same time, who chooses to speak to us. How mindblowing is that?

But there is something else in verse 4 that is almost as overwhelming. Let me ask you a question. If God is a completely pure spirit, is there anything that he has created that even comes close to reflecting his image and likeness? He already told us not to make for ourselves anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. The translation called the Message puts it this way, “No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim.” That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? So, what does that leave? Remember these words, “image” and “likeness,” and ask yourself where you have heard those words before. Let me give you a hint.

After God created the heavens and earth, the things above the earth, and the things beneath the water (all the things he told us not to make idols of), there is one final thing he needs to create. And he says this about it in Genesis 1:26-27, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Though you can’t see it in English, in Hebrew, two different words are used to describe both “image” and “likeness” when we compare our passage in Exodus 20:4 with Genesis 1:26. In our passage, we are literally talking about an idol made in the form of something that is carved out of wood or stone. It’s all external, represents something impersonal, and doesn’t do anything. It just sits there. Hardly a great representation of God. In fact, ironically, man makes this god with his own hands based on his imagination. This is why the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 44:10-11 says, “Who but a fool would make his own god—an idol that cannot help him one bit? 11 All who worship idols will be disgraced along with all these craftsmen—mere humans— who claim they can make a god.” (NLT)

But this is quite different in the Genesis passage because the “image” there involves not just what is external but has a much deeper meaning. Here’s how Wayne Grudem defines what is meant by “image: “The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God in the following ways: intellectual ability, moral purity, spiritual nature, dominion over the earth, creativity, ability to make ethical choices, and immortality.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2008). 

Looking back at our passage, the reason God doesn’t want us to make an impersonal whittled-down image of him is that he wants us to be the reflection of his image in all that we say and do in a culture filled with other competing false “gods” (Acts 17:23). Because God is a Spirit, he has created us to be the truest image of himself that there is as we not only reflect his glory but point others to him. 

And that leads to the second point. Not only do we worship God as Spirit in all his glory and splendor, but a second thing we learn from our passage is that…

Point 2: We Worship God Only (v. 5)

Look at what God says to Moses in verse 5, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.” Once again, in the form of a command, God gives Moses further instructions for Israel on how to worship him. Not only are they not to make carved images representing him, but they are also not to bow down to them or serve those idols. What does he mean by “to bow down?” This word, which is used 164 times in the Old Testament, literally means “lying stretched out on the ground with one's face downward.” It is the act of lying prostrate as a form of honor or worship (Genesis 48:12). 

And God does not want them to bow down before these carved images because they are created according to how man wants God to be and not how he really is. Once again, it's not God that would be worshiped, but a carved image they created with their imaginations and hands (Romans 1:22–23). This self-manufactured god would hopefully do their bidding and carry out their wishes. Also, rather than worshiping a God who wants to have a personal relationship with them, they worship instead one that is incapable of relating with them but also one that instills fear. Why fear?

Because fear is the instrument that these lifeless gods created by man use as motivation for service. The word “serve” in our passage means “to compel one to labor as a slave (Exodus 1:13).” And that summarizes the mindset of that whole culture with their numerous gods. But serving our God is different. 

When God’s people serve him, it should not be out of bondage, drudgery, or servile fear but rather a joyous and liberating experience (Exodus 10:7; 23:25; Psalm 100:2, 1 Peter 4:10, Revelation 7:15). Even though we are commanded not to bow down to these carved images in worship, we are still called to approach God in worship with a spirit of humility and service. Where do we see that in our passage? We see it in the second half of verse 5 in the words, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.” 

The reason God says not to create carved images, to bow down to them, or serve them is because he alone is worthy of our worship. After all, he alone is God, Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God who creates and sustains all things. This is why your Bibles have the word “LORD” in all caps. It signifies the Hebrew word “Yahweh” to set God apart from all the other false gods. There is only one God, and his name is Yahweh. There is no other! That’s why that little three-letter word “for” in verse 5 is so important. It gives the reason for everything that was said just before it. 

 Why does Yahweh forbid the worship of idols even though they are meant to reflect him according to our image of him based on our imagination? Simply put, he is a jealous God. To use a more positive and also more accurate word, it is because of his zeal. It is a burning passion driven by the love that he feels for his people. That’s what the word “jealous” means in Hebrew. 

Jealousy isn’t often viewed positively. When it is discussed, people generally have in mind something more like envy, the desire to get something that does not belong to you. However, when something really does belong to you, there are times when it needs to be protected. Holy jealousy guards someone’s rightful possession. A great example is the love between a husband and wife. No husband who truly loves his wife would ever endure seeing her in the arms of another man. It would make him intensely jealous, and with good reason! God feels the same way about his people, which is why he says, “I the LORD your God.” His commitment to us is total. His love is exclusive, passionate, intense—in a word, jealous. 

If this is what jealousy means, then God has to be jealous. He loves us too much not to be! In fact, jealousy is one of his divine characteristics. As author Christopher Wright has said: “A God who was not jealous... would be as contemptible as a husband who didn’t care whether or not his wife was faithful to him. Part of our problem with this profound covenantal reality is that we have come to regard religion, like everything else, as a matter of ‘consumer choice.’... We resent monopolies. But the unique and incomparable, only living God makes necessarily exclusive claims and has the right to a monopoly on our love.... Jealousy is God’s love protecting itself.” (Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996) And this kind of love you won’t find in any man-made gods that surrounded Israel or which man can conjure up for himself in his imagination.

 This is why we worship only God with hearts of humble service. Just as we are created in his image and likeness and loved with zealous jealousy that has no bounds, we are to respond with this same kind of love for him. We don’t try to make him conform to what we want him to be. We don’t try to manipulate him into doing for us what we want him to do. And we don’t try to minimize his greatness, sovereignty, and authority by whittling him into something comprehendible that we can control. Remember, he is the God of billions and billions of galaxies who, for some reason, has chosen to extend his love to us. Once again, how do we even begin to wrap our minds around that?

Oftentimes, when I meet with a couple in my office to talk about issues they are having in their marriage, I typically ask them to rank their top five priorities. And if they are honest, the list usually sounds something like this: work first, then their spouse, their kids, their friends, and then maybe God. Of course, that list varies from person to person. But when they are honest, God is usually fourth or fifth on their list, even though they know he should be first. We all do! He has the right to be first in our lives, and he should be. But why isn’t he?

Because we would rather serve a god of our own making. It takes too much trust in God for us to be really comfortable with him. He does what he wants to do and doesn’t feel obligated to have to answer to us in the process. The god of our imagination, the one we bow down to and serve, can often be manipulated and controlled. Or at least we hope it can. But one thing is for sure. It isn’t capable of loving us with a zealously jealous kind of love and doesn’t expect the same kind of love in return. Serving the god of our imagination may allow us to find some satisfaction in our work, kids, and future investments, but there are no guarantees. 

Yet, that is not how it’s supposed to be. The Lord your God, Yahweh, the one in our passage that you say you worship (which is why you are here this morning), loves you, protects you, and provides for you. The same God who created billions and billions of galaxies is sovereignly guiding your steps through every hard moment in your life to a place where you will one day stand in the presence of his Spirit and glory to dwell with him for eternity. And because of that, not only do we worship him as Spirit, and worship him only, but as verses 5-6 show us…

Point 3: We Worship God In Spirit and Truth (v. 5-6)

In the final section of our passage, God tells us the consequences of those who choose to worship him according to their own imaginations versus those who worship him as he commands. Look at what he says at the end of verse 5 and verse 6, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Depending on how we worship God, there are one of two possible outcomes. The first is seen at the end of verse 5 and results in God “visiting iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation.” Here’s how the New Living Translation puts this verse, “I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.” What is meant by this? 

For some people, this verse refers to what is called “generational curses,” which is basically the belief that bad things happen to us because of the sinful decisions and actions our relatives committed in the past spanning generations. But that is not what verse 5 is talking about. In fact, Ezekiel 18:20 seems to correct that view when it says, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.” So, it has to be talking about something else. And it is.

Listen to how pastor and author Kevin DeYoung explains it, “This warning is about God’s judgment on those who walk in the wicked ways of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. The children share in their father’s punishment because they share in their father’s sins. Ezekiel teaches that if you turn away from your father’s sin, you will not face your father’s punishment. But Exodus says, if you keep on sinning as your father did, you will not escape your father’s punishment. God will punish the next generation if they continue in the sins they learned from the previous generation. That’s the point of the warning.” (Kevin DeYoung. “The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them”; Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois)

And why do they keep on sinning generation after generation? Because, as our text tells us, they hate God. In fact, the word “hate” in our passage actually means “one who is unloved, shunned, or even treated with contempt.” I know you are probably thinking, “Well, that’s not me! I love God. I don’t hate him!” But let me ask you a question. Do you love the God revealed in the Bible, or do you love the god that you have created in your mind and imagination? Here’s a litmus test. When something happens in your life that is painful which you aren’t expecting, or where you may be facing an agonizing situation that forces you to have to wait on God to act, how do you respond to him? 

Listen to how Israel responded as they waited for Moses while he was meeting with God. In Exodus 32:1 it says, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us.’” How did they respond to God in this story? They showed contempt for him. How do we respond to God when he doesn’t do what we want him to? Is he still the One who “works everything according to the purpose of his own unchangeable and completely righteous will for his own glory” or not? If not, do we end up shunning him, treating him in an unloving way, or even showing contempt for him? That’s one option. But there’s a second option as well. 

In verse 6, it says this, “but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” In this verse, we find our answer for how to truly worship God. Rather than resorting to other idols of our imagination to take God’s place when he’s not doing what we want him to (which often leads to sin) or being distracted by the many other idols that dot our landscape, what are we supposed to do? Continue trusting him, even when what he’s doing doesn’t make sense to us. And how do we know we are trusting God? Verse 6 says that we continue to love him and keep his commandments. 

What does that look like practically? The answer may surprise you. By using the word “love” in this passage, what the author has in mind is “genuine affection or adoration.” It's an undying love for someone in spite of the circumstances. But not only that. It's a love that results in doing what the one we love asks us to do. That’s part of what it means to “keep my commandments.” But it's more than just “keeping” God’s commandments. The word used for “keep” in our passage also has in mind the idea of “protecting or preserving God’s commandments in practice” and not just doing them. 

A simple example of what that looks like is to continue to call a man a “man” and a woman a “woman.” Why? Because our God created them that way. Rather than give into the idolatrous idea that there are more than two biological identities or that you can change those identities, we continue to worship God by holding firm to the truth of what he says (Genesis 1:27). Are you going to worship God by loving him and preserving his truth or are you going to bow down and serve the idols of our culture? This is just one example of many that you are going to face in the days ahead. And as hard as the choice may be at times, if you worship God only, then you have only one choice to make. And why will you make the right choice?

Because the God of “billions and billions of galaxies,” who created you in his image and likeness, loves you. But it is not just any kind of love. In fact, the Hebrew word for God’s love is different than the word used for how we are to love him. We are called to adore God and have great affection for him. But the word used here to describe God’s love for us is the word “Hesed,” which includes adoration and great affection, but so much more. Translated as “showing steadfast love,” God’s love for us combines commitment with sacrifice. It is love without an exit strategy. It’s a stubborn love driven by mercy that binds itself to the object of its love, no matter the response, with a faithfulness that never ends. And this is the kind of love God has for his people, “showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations (New English Translation).” Folks, when you say you love God, and he responds with, “I love you more!” he means it. And he’s proven it. How?

By showing us in the person of his Son, Jesus, what his love and truth are tangibly. Thousands of years after Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to Israel, Jesus, in a conversation with a Samaritan woman, said in John 4:23-24, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

The worship that God is talking about is worship empowered by God but also informed by the revelation of God and provided to humans by the One who is the truth, Jesus Christ. If you want to worship God the way that he wants to be worshiped, put down your idols, stop imagining what God is like or trying to make him conform to what you want him to be like, and look at Jesus, the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him (John 14:6).” 

If you want to worship God, worship him as Spirit, worship him only, and worship him in Spirit and in truth. As author and counselor Diane Langberg reminds us, “Truth is not a little thing. It is a crucial thing because truth is at the core of who God is. Anything that is not true is not of God. Scripture tells us that God has called us to truth. He is truth. And we are to seek truth. We all have been directly or indirectly taught things that are laced with lies. Jesus, your Redeemer, speaks truth. His voice can be trusted. His Word is sure. He is, in his person, the truths that he teaches.” (Diane Langberg, “On The Threshold of Hope: Opening the Door of Healing for Survivors of Sexual Abuse”)

Let's pray together.


Father, words cannot express how grateful we are for all you have done for us through the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus. Not only has he freed us from the dominion of sin in our lives, given us eternal life, and made us righteous due to his perfect life, but he has also revealed in the flesh what you are like. Father, forgive us for the times when we cling to the idols of our imaginations, try to put you in a box, control you, or get angry with you for not doing what we want you to do. By your Spirit, help us to love you just as you are and to trust you fully even when what you do may not make sense to us in the moment. And show us how to worship you with hearts full of joy and adoration to the God who not only created billions of galaxies but became flesh so that we might know you as our Lord and God and experience your steadfast love on a daily basis. For to you and you alone belongs all the glory. Amen.


“Now all glory to God, who is able to keep you from falling away and will bring you with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault. 25 All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen.” (Jude 24-25)

Brothers and sisters, you are sent!