“The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.”
OK – who said that?
Would you believe Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi. He said it at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) on February 12th (2011). He was talking about the main thing being electing a Republican president.
Who else said it before that?
It’s such a cool statement – like someone has a firm grasp of the obvious.
But it’s not so obvious – is it?
After all – exactly what is the main thing is totally dependent on who’s talking.
I Googled the phrase – and came up with all sorts of hits.
The first few are by Stephen Covey – a businessman.
President Obama said something very close to it.
And there’s a whole bunch of other hits on it.,
including that T.F. Tenney wrote a book by that name.
I guess my thinking when I heard the line would probably match up pretty well with what T.F. Tenney had in mind in his book. He is now a Bishop Emeritus for the United Pentecostal Church International. The book is out of print – not available in electronic format (too bad) – but I may track down a used copy sometime. He has another book that looks good too – also out of print apparently. It’s called “The Lord Said … Or Was That Me?”. Both look interesting.
Oops – news flash – it’s apparently not out of print. One of the “dangers” of writing while researching. But – that’s the way I do it. Anyway – they are still available. Guess the time to get them is now. If they’re good – I’m sure more will follow from them.
I guess one of the side benefits of moving to a new hosting site is that rather than just copy everything over, I have to reformat everything – and therefore also read everything. Back in February of 2011 when I first wrote this, I didn’t order the book right away. Now, it’s six years and one day later – and I still haven’t ordered the book. Well, that’s not quite true. I literally just ordered “The Lord Said … Or Was That Me?” from amazon.com – and then came back to write this.
Anyway – when I do more updates, I’ll put them in text like this so you can tell what’s new.
So – getting back to the main thing – the original topic – who said that phrase first?
I have to wonder now – how much of what I’m going to say matches up with what Tenney already wrote. Guess I’ll soon find out.
Anyway – when I saw Haley Barbour’s version of the main thing – it reminded me of something that I’d recently read from Has Christianity Failed You?, by Ravi Zacharias. He’s got this great sequence regarding Noah and building the Ark. He’s writing about the difficulties of young people today trying to navigate through their faith journey without a map or anything to guide them. And then he says –
When Noah was building his ark, God gave him detailed instructions for everything: how high, no higher; how long, no longer; what species to include and in what numbers — details ad nauseum. But when all had been done according to God’s instructions and the door was finally shut, it must have been a terrifying experience to realize there was no sail or rudder on this ark. Who was in control?
(Side note here – for another look at difficulties today, using an example of Noah trying to build the Ark – see this page, which is part of a class I did for C S Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.)
At first – I got the point.
But then – I couldn’t help but wonder – wait a minute! Were sails and rudders even known back then? There’s this urge to Google it. So I did. I tried to find out when the first boat was built. The answers are all over the map (no pun intended) – ranging from hundreds of thousands of years ago (which would be most difficult for a new earth creationist to deal with – which I am not) -to more “modern” times – to Noah.
Why am I looking this up? Because if Noah had no knowledge of sails and rudders – would he be terrified? Or would he be blissfully ignorant?
Then reality sets in again – the main thing becomes the main thing again – and I realize that it doesn’t matter. If there were no sail boats before this – and maybe even no boats at all – then they’ve all got to be pretty scared as soon as the ark starts to lift off the ground. We had pretty hard rain here at home last night – and like anyone would, we were concerned that nothing leaks. And we’re not even leaving the ground – hopefully.
At that point in time for Noah – as the boat starts to leave solid ground and float to who knows where – the main thing was probably something along the lines of who’s controlling this thing – and will it really float and not leak?
In other words – did God give Noah the right directions – will the ark work as promised – and will everyone be delivered safely by God through the flood waters?
That says there’s another main thing – an over arching, big picture type of main thing – that’s over the current moment main thing. That over arching main thing – that would be God. God’s the One that promised Noah everything would be OK.
So – does God say anything about the main thing?
It would seem that the place to find that out would be to look at the Ten Commandments – see what God puts as the main thing.
In the Bible – the Commandments are given to Moses in Exodus 20:1-17 —
The Ten Commandments
Ex 20:1 And God spoke all these words:
Ex 20:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Ex 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
Ex 20:4 “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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Ex 20:7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Ex 20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Ex 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
Ex 20:13 “You shall not murder.
Ex 20:14 “You shall not commit adultery.
Ex 20:15 “You shall not steal.
Ex 20:16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
Ex 20:17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Moses gathered the Israelites and repeated this to them in Deuteronomy 5:1-21 — to be sure the people learned and kept the Lord’s Commandments —
The Ten Commandments
Dt 5:1 Moses summoned all Israel and said:
Hear, O Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them. 2 The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 It was not with our fathers that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today. 4 The LORD spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain. 5 (At that time I stood between the LORD and you to declare to you the word of the LORD, because you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
Dt 5:6 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Dt 5:7 “You shall have no other gods before me.
Dt 5:8 “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. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Dt 5:11 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Dt 5:12 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Dt 5:16 “Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
Dt 5:17 “You shall not murder.
Dt 5:18 “You shall not commit adultery.
Dt 5:19 “You shall not steal.
Dt 5:20 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
Dt 5:21 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Dt 5:22 These are the commandments the LORD proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.
OK – both sets of verses say pretty much the same thing. So why put both in here?
Well – it’s to keep the main thing as the main thing.
There are some minor differences in the wording – although the concepts are the same in both. We need to be careful to not get lost in the details of Moses adding words in Deuteronomy as he reminds the people that the words he is speaking came from God.
Another interesting thing about these Ten Commandments – is that there is not actual agreement about how to assign numbers to them. Different religions / denominations break them up differently –
How’s that for some details to get lost in?
But – let’s try to not get lost.
What’s the first – and Main thing?
“I am the LORD your God”
Depending on your religion / denomination – that may be number one – or it may be considered a preface. As a preface – it’s to be taken as the lead-in to the rest – like telling us why the rest of it exists. Either way – it’s the most important thing to know – that God is God.
Following that – ignoring the actual numbers assigned – but looking at only the relative order of importance as indicated by the fact that they came first, we have –
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol
“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”
The point – the main thing – is that no matter whether we count them as 3, 4 or 5 “things” – what is most commonly considered the first our commandments all have to do with God. They are about our relationship with God.
And that should be our main thing – maintaining the right relationship with God.
What about Jesus – did He have anything to say on the subject? What is the main thing in what Jesus said?
That question is answered in Matthew 22:34-40, when the Pharisees had the following exchange with Jesus –
The Greatest Commandment
Mt 22:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Mt 22:37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Interesting – ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ – that’s not exactly one of the ten commandments given to Moses. Where did that come from?
Well – that’s from Deuteronomy 6:5 – with the full context in Deut 6:1-9 —
Love the LORD Your God
Dt 6:1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.
Dt 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 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. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
And what about ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ – where does that come from?
It is a reference to Leviticus 19:18 – with the full context in Lev 19:1-19 —
Lev 19:1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.
Lev 19:3 “ ‘Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God.
Lev 19:4 “ ‘Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the LORD your God.
Lev 19:5 “ ‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. 6 It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up. 7 If any of it is eaten on the third day, it is impure and will not be accepted. 8 Whoever eats it will be held responsible because he has desecrated what is holy to the LORD; that person must be cut off from his people.
Lev 19:9 “ ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.
Lev 19:11 “ ‘Do not steal.
“ ‘Do not lie.
“ ‘Do not deceive one another.
Lev 19:12 “ ‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
Lev 19:13 “ ‘Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him.
“ ‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Lev 19:14 “ ‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.
Lev 19:15 “ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
Lev 19:16 “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.
Lev 19:17 “ ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.
Lev 19:18 “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
Lev 19:19 “ ‘Keep my decrees.
So – neither of these is directly from the Ten Commandments.
The first commandment that Jesus references is from when Moses is telling the Israelites the importance of the Ten Commandments.
The second is from when God gives Moses what the NIV calls “Various Laws” in Levitcus. Many of these end up being in the Ten Commandments.
We could go on and delve into the details here – but let’s not.
Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ – that’s what the first 4 (or 3 for Roman Catholic & Lutheran) commandments are all about.
‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ – that’s what the rest of the commandments are all about.
I don’t know if I didn’t notice, or did notice and decided not to include it six years ago, but everything in here just came full circle. This whole discussion about the Ten Commandments, and which order they “belong” in, depending on which denomination you are – I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t come from a failure to keep the main thing as the main thing.
While trying to research this topic, all I really found was a whole bunch of opinions on who changed what – with each one arguing why it couldn’t have been their denomination. In the end – based on what was written, it’s logical to assume that no one changed anything, and they’ve always been different. This, of course makes no sense whatsoever.
So – what we end up with is a whole bunch of Christian denominations arguing over whose version is correct (and also first – even though none of these denominations (obviously) existed back in Moses’ time! They take their focus off the main thing (God) and appear to non-church people like everything they stand for is just made by man and doesn’t really mean anything.
I even found one site that claims the Ten Commandments don’t apply to Christians. That in spite of Jesus’ words that we just read. Not to mention this –
The Fulfillment of the Law
Mt 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
How anyone can read that and conclude the Ten Commandments don’t apply to Christians is beyond me.
Let me repeat the key verse – Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Because of Grace, and belief in Jesus – someone who breaks one of the commandment can indeed enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Add to that the part about “and teaches” (yes, it says “and” – not “or”) that it’s OK to break the Commandments – they can also enter the Kingdom of Heaven – due to that same grace and belief in Jesus. But they will be called “least“.
But notice the flip side of that. In the second part of that statement, Jesus also uses the word “and“. So to be called “great” in the Kingdom of Heaven, one must keep (I use “keep”, not “practice” to portray the true meaning of the Greek word translated here as “practice”. It means to do or to make – not to try to do or try to make), the commandments and teach them (correctly). I have to assume, therefore, that no one will be called “great“, except for Jesus – not for our apparent failure to even get the Ten Commandments right ( at least some of us must not have, since we argue over them), but because not a single person (other than Jesus) has ever kept all of them.
That conclusion shouldn’t be surprising, since the rich young man who called Jesus “good teacher“, received the following response when asking Jesus about what’s necessary to inherit eternal life
Mk 10:18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’’”
Mk 10:20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Mk 10:21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Yes – no one is even “good”, let alone “great” – except God. And that’s trying to keep the main thing the main thing.
In either case – the Old Testament puts our relationship with God first – and our relationship with each other second.
The New Testament puts our relationship with God first – and our relationship with each other second.
And, as Jesus said – “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” So while Jesus didn’t directly reference the Ten Commandments – He did say that those Ten Commandments hang on the two He spoke.
The truth is – if we have a good relationship with God – we will want to do the rest – and the relationship with others will follow from that.
It is not true the other way around. Having a good relationship with other people does not necessarily mean we will have a good relationship with God.
So let’s remember that the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.
And let’s remember that the main thing – is God.