The First Commandment
“Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” –Exodus 20:3
This series on the Ten Commandments, beginning with a timely review of the First Commandment, is for you and for me. Let us not think that we have outgrown such a review. The Apostle Peter, “moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21b), wrote down this exhortation: “I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them and be established in the present truth. Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle [this body], to stir you up by putting you in remembrance. …Moreover, I will endeavor that ye may be able after my decease [my death] to have these things always in remembrance” (vv. 12-13 and 15). May this series on the Ten Commandments, beginning with the First Commandment in this issue of The Concordia Lutheran, “stir [us] up by putting [us] in remembrance” of the divine standards which our Triune God, through His “Word” (Psalm 119:105) of truth, has revealed and made known to us in the Ten Commandments.
What are we to do with God’s commandments? As God’s “people” (I Peter 2:10), we are to use His commandments as a curb, as a mirror, and as a rule for our Christian lives; we are also to hear His commandments as they are set forth in the Scriptures; we are to believe them, teach them, talk about them, and give them much-needed attention in our daily lives. This use of God’s commandments is so clearly conveyed to us in Deuteronomy 6, where Moses, God’s writer, said: “These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart, and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes, and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house and on thy gates” (vv. 6-9). Here we see how God wants us to make use of His commandments day and night! Some excellent, practical, and edifying ways to keep God’s words before our eyes and hearts more and more are having daily devotions, placing Scripture verses in every room in our homes (possibly on walls, tables, desks, countertops, exterior of cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer, and maybe even on windows), and memorizing passages from God’s Word, considering the old-fashioned, but ever-new method of “flash cards,” with the words of the verse on one side and the Bible location (the address) of the words on the other side.
Now let us place before our eyes and hearts the words of God’s First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” This “Me” is the only true God: “There is none other God but One” (I Corinthians 8:4c); “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” (Matthew 4:10b). Furthermore, this “Me” is the Triune God, as Jesus Himself confirmed in Matthew 28, when He said to all of His followers: “Go ye therefore and teach [make disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (v. 19). Yes, indeed, without any hesitation, we can most confidently and most certainly declare on the basis of the sure foundation of God’s Word of “truth” (John 17:17), that this one, true, and Triune God is:
■ Everlasting – “From everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God” (Psalm 90:2b). This one, true, and Triune God is timeless: “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8b).
■ Unchangeable – “I am the Lord; I change not” (Malachi 3:6a). People can change, but the one, true, and Triune God will ever remain “the same” (Psalm 102:27a). We can be certain that all the “promises of God in Him [in Christ] are ‘Yea [Yes], and in Him [in Christ] Amen” (II Corinthians 1:20a); “God …cannot lie” (Titus 1:2).
■ All-powerful – “With God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37); “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26b). He can do and He does do whatever He desires to do according to His divine will: “He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased” (Psalm 115:3b); “He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20a). This almighty God worked directly at the creation of the world: “He spake and it was done” (Psalm 33:9a). It is also a fact that this almighty God works indirectly, through means, such as through the means of “the Gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16a), which “is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (v. 16b), both creating faith and preserving faith (Romans 10:17; I Peter 1:5). However, the one, true, and Triune God cannot do anything that would go against His written words and promises in the Holy Scriptures: He cannot do evil; He cannot contradict Himself. The Apostle Paul declared: “If we believe not, yet He abideth faithful; He cannot deny Himself” (II Timothy 2:13).
■ Just – “A God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4b); “The Lord is righteous in all His ways and holy in all His works” (Psalm 145:17); “Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness, neither shall evil dwell with Thee. The foolish shall not stand in Thy sight; Thou hatest all workers of iniquity; Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing [lies]; the Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man” (Psalm 5:4-6); “There is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:11); “‘Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19b). The one, true, and Triune God is a Judge whose judgments are in perfect conformity with His commandments, a Judge who demands of all people “perfect” (Matthew 5:48) conformity with all of His commandments, and a Judge who will punish those who fail in even “one point” (James 2:10b) to obey perfectly, to “do” (Galatians 3:10c) His commandments perfectly.
■ Merciful – “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7a); “When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5a); “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13); “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17); “Christ is the end of the Law [the fulfillment of the Law] for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Romans 10:4). Justice and mercy are seemingly contradictory attributes, but the one, true, and Triune God never, ever contradicts Himself. These two attributes of God (justice and mercy) are completely reconciled to each other, totally agreeable with each other, and both wonderfully harmonious in Christ Jesus, and only in Christ Jesus. The one, true, and Triune God took out the full force of His justice on Jesus as the Substitute, the Redeemer, the Savior “under the Law” (Galatians 4:4) for us and for “the whole world” (I John 2:2) of sinners, so that He, as the one, true, and Triune God, having His justice fully satisfied by Jesus, could be and was merciful in Christ Jesus toward every single sinner, doing, finishing, and giving to all the marvelous, undeserved, unmerited, and unearned work of “reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing [not charging] their trespasses unto them. …For He [the one, true, and Triune God] made Him [Christ Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him [in Christ Jesus]” (II Corinthians 5:19a and 21). We ought to join the Prophet Jeremiah again and again and again, confessing with profound thanks and much praise that “it is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed [by His just wrath], because His compassions fail not; they are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). These mercies and compassions from the one, true, Triune, and faithful God are inseparably connected to and built on the “Seed” of the woman (Genesis 3:15), the “Seed” of Abraham (Genesis 22:18a), who was and is none other than “Christ” (Galatians 3:16), “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6b). How are these priceless, never-changing, and everlasting mercies and compassions from the one, true, and Triune God only received, only enjoyed, and only treasured by needy sinners? There is only one right answer to this question: “God sent not His Son [the Son of Man and the Son of God, Christ Jesus] into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him [the Son of Man and the Son of God, Christ Jesus] is not condemned, but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. …He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:18 and 36).
It is this one, true, Triune, everlasting, unchangeable, all-powerful, just, and merciful God who has said to us in Exodus 20: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (v. 3). All other gods in the world, no matter what their name might be, are nothing gods, are worthless gods, are not true, but false gods. The Apostle Paul spoke these changeless words of truth in I Corinthians 8: “We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but One” (v. 4c).
Scripture names for us some of these nothing, worthless, false gods, and teaches us through the example of the Israelites the great danger of such gross idolatry:
■ Judges 2 – “The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served Baalim. And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger. And they forsook the Lord and served Baal and Ashtaroth. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel” (vv. 11-14a).
■ Numbers 25 – “And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they [the daughters of Moab] called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods, and the people [the people of Israel] did eat and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor, and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (vv. 1-3).
■ Exodus 32 – “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron and said unto him: ‘Up, make us gods which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not [we know not] what is become of him.’ And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’ And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool after he had made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’ And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made proclamation and said: ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.’ And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Go, get thee down, for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said: ‘These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt’” (vv. 1-8).
Why did our God have these tragic events in the lives of His people written down in Judges 2, Numbers 25, and Exodus 32? The Apostle Paul answered this question in Romans 15, where we are told: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning [for our teaching, for our instruction], that we through patience [endurance] and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (v. 4). In I Corinthians 10, the same apostle said to the Christians at Corinth and to each of us: “Now all these things happened unto them [the Israelites] for examples, and they are written for our admonition [for our warning] upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. …Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry” (vv. 11-12, 14).
What are some of the idols, some examples of fine idolatry from which we should flee in our day-after-day lives, following the clear counsel of the one, true, and Triune God: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”?
■ Proverbs 3 – “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding” (v. 5). We are not to make an idol of ourselves, trusting in our own understanding when that understanding is contrary to the Word of God, trusting in our own opinions, thoughts, and desires when those opinions, thoughts, and desires are contrary to God’s Word. When Jesus, in Matthew 16, began “to show unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (v. 21), how did the Apostle Peter show that he made a god of himself over the Son of God, Jesus Christ? He (Peter) took Jesus “and began to rebuke Him, saying: ‘Be it far from Thee, Lord; this shall not be unto Thee’” (v. 22). How did Jesus respond to Peter placing and elevating his own understanding above the “understanding” (Psalm 119:104) of “the true God,” Jesus Christ (I John 5:20b), as revealed in His clear words in verse 21 of Matthew 16 (see above)? He (Jesus) said to Peter: “Get thee behind Me, Satan; thou art an offense unto Me, for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men [contrary to God’s things]” (v. 23). Following this, the Savior taught the disciples who were present and His disciples of all time: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (v. 24). Let us “flee from [the] idolatry” (I Corinthians 10:14) of making ourselves an idol over the one, true, Triune, and merciful God “in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19a), over His revealed words in the Holy Scriptures, especially over His words in Exodus 20: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
■ Matthew 10 – “He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (v. 37). When we show that we have loved our blood relatives more than the one, true, and Triune God, even if we have done that only “one” (James 2:10) time, then it is evident that we have placed those blood relatives (whether it is a spouse, a child, a sibling, a grandparent, or any other relative) before and above the Lord God, our Creator, our Preserver, our Redeemer, our Justifier, and our Comforter. Abraham’s love for his son, who was to be one of the human links from whom the only Savior for sinners would most certainly be born, was greatly tested when the one, true, and Triune God said to him: “Take now thy son, thine only son, Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Genesis 22:2). When Abraham eventually came to “the place” (v. 9) where he was to go, and “stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son” (v. 10), the Lord God called out to him and said: “Abraham, Abraham; …Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him, for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from Me” (vv. 11-12). Let us, like Abraham, “flee from [the] idolatry” (I Corinthians 10:14) of loving any of our blood relatives more than we love the one, true, and Triune God, who so greatly “loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
■ Let us also “flee from [the] idolatry” (I Corinthians 10:14) of participating with and supporting those organizations (such as the Boy Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous) which confess that the one, true, and Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is just one of many gods which we are to respect and support in our lives, a confession which is the complete opposite of what the one, true God teaches us in the Holy Scriptures: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”
This “one” (I Corinthians 8:4b), true, and Triune God is the only gracious, merciful, and forgiving God who, through “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29a), has taken “away the sin of the world” (v. 29b). No other god has done this great, undeserved, unearned, unmerited, and perfect work for all sinners. Who is this Lamb of God? He is none other than that Lamb “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8b), that Lamb of God, our “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous; …He is the propitiation [the complete payment, the total ransom] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1b-2), that Lamb of God who “was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Concerning this precious Substitute and Savior for all sinners, Christ Jesus, the Apostle Peter declared: “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The Apostle Paul also testified concerning this only Savior for sinners: “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all” (I Timothy 2:5-6a). And how vital and how important is this one Mediator in our behalf before God? “He that believeth on Him is not condemned” (John 3:18a) for our many imperfections, shortcomings, and sins of not perfectly fearing (respecting), loving, and trusting in this Son of God, God the Son, “The Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6b), of not perfectly fearing (respecting), loving, and trusting in God the loving heavenly Father, who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16), and of not perfectly fearing (respecting), loving, and trusting in God the Holy Ghost, who through His revealed Word, is our never-changing “Comforter” (John 14:26). “Thanks be to God [the only true, Triune, gracious, and merciful God] which giveth us the victory [over death, over the grave, over our sins, over hell] through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:57)!
— R. J. L.