And God spoke all these words, saying,
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
Exodus 20:1-3 ESV
Throughout our study on the Ten Commandments, we will seek to focus a great deal upon our obedience to what God has commanded of us. While the Apostles’ Creed was concerned primarily with our beliefs and the Lord’s Prayer with how we pray, the Ten Commandments are necessarily centered upon what we must do and not do (which is the nature of a commandment after all). While we will, of course, study doctrine within these sermons (particularly as we glimpse the attributes of God through His law), the call to obey will be at the forefront of our study.
NO OTHER GODS
The First Commandment reads, “You shall have no other gods before me.” At its core, God is denouncing idolatry, condemning it as sin. Yet before we discuss the nature of idolatry, consider first the pronoun used here. I’ve already made note of the pronouns used in the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and the one used in the Ten Commandments is no less significant. God uses the second person singular, you. The original audience was Israel, God’s people, who were standing around Mount Sinai hearing God speaking to them from the smoke and fire and lightening. Yet in the midst of this great congregation, God spoke directly to each Israelite. The laws were given to the whole nation, but each person bore the responsibility for obeying them.
Yet God did not solely speak to those ancient Israelites. He etched these words into stone to symbolize their permanence and inspired Moses to write them into a book called Exodus. He even repeated them in Deuteronomy. Indeed, God speaks these words to all His people throughout history. As an offspring of Abraham by faith in Christ, take time to meditate on understanding that the Ten Commandments are spoken by God to you. They are still very much rules for governing life in the community of God’s people, yet the responsibility of obedience does not fall upon the collective unit but rather each person.
If you have ever desired for God to speak a direct message to you, hear now what God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Not only has the Creator spoken to you, but He has also given you instruction. He has revealed to you His will: have no other gods before Him. Is this not good news! The Holy One, the Almighty, the One who was and is and is to come, the King of Kings who is robed in unapproachable light, the One before Whom even the seraphim cover their faces, this God has spoken. He has given you the way by which you will please Him and walk in His favor. Never forget that the giving of God’s law is itself a grace.
God forbids having any other gods. Mark F. Rooker notes that this is very similar to marital language. “This commandment implies that there may be no third parties in a person’s relationship with God, just as there may be no intruding third parties in a marriage. Indeed, the expression of not pursuing other gods is reminiscent of a wife pursuing another man” (25). The prophets, of course, use the imagery of adultery to describe Israel’s constant descent into idolatry, and Paul states in Ephesians 5 that the very purpose of marriage is to serve as a miniature display of Christ’s relationship to His Church.
Yet if idolatry is akin to adultery, does the Bible teach that there really are other gods just as a person may forsake his or her spouse in order to be with someone else? The short answer is no. The Scriptures are clear that there is only one God, who has revealed Himself to be a Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Paul explains this very clearly to the Corinthians in his first letter to them:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.1 Corinthians 8:4-6
This does not mean, however, that false gods are always pure imagination. In chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul states, “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (v. 20). A very real supernatural power may lie behind many so-called gods, but that power is demonic. Even still, these demons who masquerade as deities are rightfully called false gods because they are not divine. “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things” even demons. To call anyone or anything that is not God a god is a lie.
This highlights a deeply tragic element to this commandment. To have another god is to believe in what is not reality. It’s the formation of a more elaborate imaginary friend, minus the element of friendship. Consider the desperation of the prophets of Baal who cut themselves in order to get the attention of a statue that they themselves made. Or think of the parents who set fire to their toddler so that Moloch would be pleased with them.
But this was not simply the tragedy of those “ignorant” ancients. Look at the devastation caused by a parent who has made their child the object of their worship. To idolize anyone means placing the weight of godhood upon their shoulders, which will crush them and breed the hatred of unmet expectations in you.
Or think of the shallow and fleeting endorphin rush of getting more stuff or of swiping down to the next Facebook or Instagram post. You see some new thing and soon become lost in the vision of what life could be if only you had it. You grab the phone or turn on the TV like a comfort blanket to avoid the dread of boredom and the thoughts that it may bring. A short high is much better than grappling with contentment or being with yourself. They are gods that offer instant reward and an easy path because they know how hard life can be.
Of course, the ultimate false god is self. The pagan deities of the ancient world demanded no love from their adherents, and they had none for them either. Religions were almost entirely a matter of quid pro quo. People gave the gods food via sacrifices, and in return the gods used their mystical powers to answer the people’s prayers. In the same way, our objects of worship today still revolve around the idea of what they can offer us in return for our devotion. All idolatry is a form of attempting to placate our own desires. Even ascetic forms of idolatry revolve around the endeavor to be rid of guilt. Self-indulgence or self-flagellation both orbit around the self. They all revolve around you. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. You be you. Just be yourself. Be true to yourself. Or my favorite, the 10 Commandments of Self Love:
I shall lovingly accept myself as I am right now.
I shall appreciate all the beauty that makes me who I am.
I shall regularly give thanks for all my blessings.
I shall trust in my ability to take care of myself.
I shall not criticize myself.
I shall not criticize others.
I shall forgive myself when I make a mistake.
I shall be kind to others without sacrificing my own needs.
I shall take responsibility for my life.
I shall love myself to the best of my ability.
Your problem, my problem, every person’s problem, is not that you don’t love yourself enough; it’s that you love yourself too much. Deep down, we all know that we are not worthy of unconditional love, even from ourselves. We know that we are not worthy of worship, so the battle for self-affirmation and self-esteem always results in cognitive dissonance. We feel in our gut that we are not great, yet many stand in front of a mirror chanting the same mantra again and again until belief finally sets in.
Or as I said, maybe its self-abuse instead. The lie of idolatry, of sin itself, is that you can choose your own adventure, that you can do whatever you want. Yet the road to destruction is so broad that many fail to see that it really is only one path with one single destination. It is easy and wide enough for everyone to travel exactly as they wish. As all roads lead to Rome, so all religions (or even non-religions) lead to God, or the Life-Force, or whatever you want to call him or her or it.
Yet the God who delivered the Israelites out of Egypt says something else entirely. Not only does He forbid the worship of these “gods,” He also gave them this command: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
How audacious is this command?! Who could make such an all-encompassing demand? What gives Him the right to demand the totality of our worship?
God’s demand for exclusive worship is not megalomania but truth and reality. He is not narcissistic to command us to love Him because He is the supreme object worthy of love. His worship is also for our good because He alone is actually God. To worship anyone or anything else is a game of charades. It’s calling a house of cards that you made yourself your home rather than living under your father’s roof. After all, what husband or wife does not have the right to demand the faithful and exclusive love of his or her spouse? How much more then should the Creator expect the love of His creation?
Don’t love yourself, your spouse, your children, your job, your home, your hobby, your reputation, your money, your things, your time with all of your being. Love God. Love Him first and last and everywhere in between. Set north on the compass of your heart, soul, and might toward love for Him. Fan this love into a flame so bright that many waters cannot quench it. Indeed, it is the only fire that will burn for eternity! Love Him so fully that every aspect of your life is fixed upon the goal of displaying the holiness and glory of His name, whether in word or in deed, whether eating or drinking.
WHO BROUGHT YOU OUT OF SLAVERY
If sin is lawlessness, we don’t need the other nine commandments to know that we are sinners. This one is entirely sufficient. After all, have you truly loved God with all your heart, soul, and might today? I think not. And what about yesterday? And the day before? How about last month? Last year? You’ve set your heart, at least partially, on other things. So have I.
Idolaters, every one of us.
But, some may say, God is merciful. He will forgive our falling short of His command. He knows that we cannot obey fully. Should a husband permit his wife to be intimate with other men because she says that she is incapable of loving him exclusively? Will he remain silent as she continues to give herself freely to men who only abuse her? Indeed, that is the very metaphor that God uses to describe the idolatry of Israel and Judah in Ezekiel 23. This refusal to love God entirely is not a small sin to be overlooked. This is the great sin, the sin from which all others flow. Idolatry is the giving of our love to lesser things in place of the one true and living God. It rejects the loving embrace of the husband in favor of slavery and prostitution.
But while God does not simply overlook any sin, especially this one, He is gracious and merciful beyond compare. In fact, the law of the Ten Commandments is preceded by His grace. Before God commands You shall have no other gods before me, He declares I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. His status as being their God was not conditioned upon their obedience to the law, nor did He rescue them from slavery because of their great love for Him. Rather, He rescued them, declared Himself to be their God, and then gives to them His law.
Ultimately, brothers and sisters, the account of the Exodus is a shadow of the greatest liberation of His people that God would perform. Worse than any physical slavery, humanity was enslaved to sin. Like the forbidden woman, sin’s lips drip honey and her words are smoother than oil, but “her feet go down to death” (Proverbs 5:3-5). Sin is the abusive relationship, in which we give our love to the hand that beats us. It is the grave which we have dug for ourselves, our own pit into which we have fallen.
Yet as with the Exodus, God unilaterally rescues us. One who is greater than Moses came to deliver His people. As both God and man, Jesus felt the devastating reality of our sinful condition, and yet He did not sin Himself. Unlike the tenth plague of Egypt, our sin requires the death of us all as the just consequence for our rebellion and hardness of heart, but like the lamb, Jesus shed His own blood so that the curse would pass over us. He took our sins upon Himself and places His righteousness upon us. This is the true Exodus. Likewise, the true Israel, the people of God, is now all who trust by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Through Him alone does God become our God. Our obedience contributes nothing to our salvation. Listen to the foreshadowing of this marvelous rescue in the Word of God given to Hosea about God’s people:
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.Hosea 2:14-20
Following this, God commanded Hosea to go find his adulterous wife and to buy her back for himself as picture of God’s love for His adulterous people. In Christ, God has indeed redeemed His wayward Bride. He has purchased us from the brothel of sin with the price of His own blood.
This command to have no other gods, therefore, is no longer a burden of guilt and condemnation; rather, it is a warning against straying from home, against chasing after the wind. In Christ, we strive to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It is a call turn our eyes away from every worthless thing and to fix them upon the Lamb who was slain and is worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).