The First Commandment
August 1, 2010
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 bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself any 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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD you God, and a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
What does this mean?
We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
“And God spoke all these words.” God did. This means that they are important. God’s words are more important than our words. If you want to know what to do to please God, listen to what God says. Surely, God knows what he wants you to do. Why listen to anyone else? In the Large Catechism, Luther comments on what he calls the “devilish presumption” of people who think that they can find a better and higher way of life than what God teaches us in the Ten Commandments.
There is good reason to memorize the Ten Commandments. We commit them to memory because they are God’s will for our behavior. They govern every single aspect of human conduct. Nothing pertaining to the lives we live in this world is left out. If we want to know our duty to God and to our neighbor, we simply must know the Ten Commandments. If we want to know what it means to fear God, to love God, to trust in God, we must know the Ten Commandments. If we want to know what it means to follow the Golden Rule, loving our neighbor as ourselves, we must know the Ten Commandments. These words are from God. These words from God teach us everything we need to know about our duty to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
They are words. The word “commandment” is not used here in the Bible to describe these words. They are not written as “you must” but as “you shall.” They describe the life of the one who belongs to God. “I am the LORD your God.” So if the LORD, Jahweh, is your God, then these words describe you. “You shall have no other gods” than the LORD God who has set you free.
Do these words describe you? If not, they stand opposed to you. If you are not described by the description of God’s child given in the Ten Words from God, why then you have a problem. Because these words most certainly do describe the life of God’s child. You shall. You shall not. This is the way it shall be if you belong to God.
God spoke these words to Moses and they were intended for the children of Israel whom God had just rescued from a cruel slavery in Egypt. God saved many people from famine through his servant, Joseph, who became a great leader in Egypt. Later, a king who did not remember or appreciate Joseph took power. He enslaved the Israelites and made life miserable for them. They were slaves for over four hundred years. They thought that God had forgotten them and most of them forgot God. But God did not forget. He sent his prophet – a man named Moses – to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Through Moses, God freed his people from slavery. They were led through water out of slavery into freedom.
The Ten Commandments were given to that nation of that time and that region. While the Ten Commandments correspond to the same law that God has put into the conscience of everyone, the Ten Commandments were written specifically for that particular nation. They were forbidden to made statues for use in worship because God knew that they would worship the statues because that’s what their neighbors did. They were forbidden to work on Saturday because the LORD God was their Creator who rested on Saturday from creating the world, and this was how they would confess to the heathen nations their faith in the one true God. Today, for us Christians, God no longer forbids making statues for use in worship (he obviously still forbids worshipping them!) or working on Saturdays. God tailor made the Ten Commandments for the Israelites of the fifteenth century before Christ. God did not give the Ten Commandments to the Germans or the Swedes or the Tasmanians. He gave them to the ancient nation of Israel whom he formed in the Sinai wilderness to be his people.
First he set them free. Then he gave them his law. First he saved them. Then he called on them to serve him. First God saves us. Only then can we serve him. Paul Speratus says it correctly in the words of the hymn,
It was a false, misleading dream
That God his law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The law is but a mirror bright
That brings the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.
The law is not the means of salvation. God saves us without our help or cooperation. The law is not the means of obtaining spiritual freedom. God sets us free by his grace alone. It was not ancient Israel that won God’s favor by their obedience. No, they earned God’s anger for their disobedience. When Israel’s father Isaac was laid on the altar by Abraham to be offered up to God as the sacrifice, he wasn’t sacrificed because God intervened and provided a ram in the place of Isaac. That ram was a symbol of Abraham’s divine seed, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone has won God’s favor for Israel and for us all. Those who teach the law of God as the way to heaven teach a lie. The fact is that the doctrine of works-righteousness – that we become righteous before God by our obedience to God’s law – is a flat rejection of the First Commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
When the Masonic Lodge teaches that one may be a faithful Mason and a faithful Christian at the same time, it teaches falsely. It is not possible to have the LORD God as your God if you believe that you are going to heaven by obeying God’s law. Indeed, only those who admit that they are lost forever unless delivered by Jesus Christ and by him alone are those who know the God who revealed himself to Moses and who gave the Ten Commandments to ancient Israel. Every religion of human works is idolatry. Indeed, it is the oldest form of idolatry. Cain was a disciple of works-righteousness, while Abel was a Christian. This is why God rejected Cain and his offerings, while he accepted both Abel and his offerings.
During times of increasing godlessness, we who still believe in the permanent standards of God’s law must be very careful not to make ungodly alliances with those who teach a false religion while still adhering outwardly to the Ten Commandments. In the Large Catechism, Luther writes: “There has never been a people so wicked that it did not establish and maintain some sort of worship.” He’s right. Even those who deify and worship sensual pleasure do have a sort of religion. So called conservative “people of faith” who reject the merits of Jesus and who promote some kind of save yourself by your deeds religion are idolaters. They may make better citizens than the openly godless hedonists who reign supreme in the popular culture, but they are no closer to God, despite their outward adherence to God’s standards of right and wrong.
Idolatry is not primarily a matter of outward worship. It is a matter of the heart. What do you fear? What do you love? What do you trust? Whatever it is, it is your god.
The Psalmist says, “The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His mercy.” (Psalm 147:11) Now to fear or to hope or to love are not things anyone can actually see though they may be expressed by outward acts. It is perfectly possible for people to go through motions that are simply expected by social pressure and not to fear, love, or trust in God at all.
What do you fear? Do you feel secure when your bills are paid and you get the raise or the price you think you need? Do you know that your life is in good hands after the sick child is feeling better, but not before? Do you know that God loves you only when you experience the love of people whom you admire? Do you want approval from the crowd so much that you are willing to offend the majesty of almighty God to get it? What do you fear? Him who can destroy the body but not the soul, or him who can destroy both body and soul in hell? What do you love? The stuff that God gives or the God who gives it? What do you trust? What you can understand? What you can control? What you can see? What you can feel?
Idolatry is in the heart, and it must be uprooted from the heart, and that hurts. The longer it stays in there without being challenged, the more it hurts. We are far better at creating idols than we are at tearing them down. We make idols out of our money, our health, our children, our spouse, our farm, our job, and our home on the lake. We make idols out of our habits, our prejudices, and our opinions. We make idols because the God whom we cannot see seems not to care for what we really need. What he wants seems to be so unpleasant. What seems to us to be right seems so right.
But what seems to us is not what is. We are but a mist over the lake to be dispelled by the rising sun. We are the grass of the field that is scorched and dried out in no time at all. The God who calls on us to serve him only, to worship him only, to trust in him only, this God in whose name we have been baptized, is the God who also defines reality for us. “You shall have no other gods,” he says. And we shall not. He will keep on coming to us and make sure of that. He will keep on tearing out of our hearts the idols we enthrone in ourselves. He will smash them to pieces and that will hurt. Then he will show himself to be our God as he points us to the cross where he – our true brother and our eternal God – suffered for us and washed away all our sins by his blood. From that blessed death, our God shows himself to us as he really and truly is. And from that wonderful revelation of his grace, we learn how to worship him as our only God, we learn to fear him, love him, and trust in him above all things. Amen