The Ten Commandments: The First
“As long as he believes in something, that is what’s important.”
With those words the man in front of me simultaneously dismissed the authority of God and justified a younger relative who had embraced an animistic system of belief. For the older gentlemen, it was the act of believing in something supernatural that mattered, not the object of that belief itself.
Against this grave error, the first of the Ten Commandments towers as a sentinel and shines as a sun: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, Deuteronomy 5:7). As a sentinel the commandment guards the exclusivity of the living God. As a sun the commandment shines down upon the totality of one’s life, leaving nothing hidden from its heat (Ps. 19:6).
Let us first consider what the commandment guards. It guards the priority and exclusivity of God in the life of man. The triune God is to be worshipped and adored without rivals. Atheism is forbidden as well as syncretism. As man’s only Creator and Redeemer, the God revealed in scripture has absolute claim over us. He is not to be politely accommodated within the pantheon of our other admired deities. On the contrary, the God revealed in scripture must be our only God, for only he is God. “There is no other besides him” (Deut. 4:35).
The apostles were quite savvy to the spirit of religious pluralism. After all, they had read the Old Testament and during their lifetime they had front row seats to the Roman empire. Whether walking in Corinth or in Jerusalem, the diverse religious impulses of the empire were always on display, in its citizens or its soldiers. Even so, the apostles were not amused nor accommodating to the gods. As Paul said: “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 Cor. 8:5-6).
The first commandment then is a summons for all with ears to hear to be contra mundum, against the world and its many gods out of love for the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). Religious neutrality is not to be tolerated, even though the Christian, as a neighbor, must not be intolerable himself, but meek. Such is the narrow hard road of the cross for all who follow Christ. The first commandment brings you great joy and sorrow. Joy in God. Sorrow in the world.
Now consider the light which shines from this commandment. The supremacy of God must permeate all of life. The two words found in the commandment, “before me,” mean in God’s sight. They are not a reference to geography, a scared location, but rather a reference to divine omniscience, meaning nothing is hidden before Almighty God. Therefore, everything about us must be devoted to God: our work, our play, our eating, our drinking, our ambitions, even plans for next year (James 4:13-17). The commandment calls for nothing less.
To make this more vivid consider Question 104 of the Westminster Larger Catechism. As it exposits the duties of the first commandment, the catechism says we are to glorify God “by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him; trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him; being zealous for him; calling upon him, giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to him with the whole man….”
Here we now see that the contra mundum sword must pierce our own heart. Even as believers many idols still find shelter and protection within our own bosom. We esteem and fear things more than God. These are our counterfeit gods. We keep them. We serve them. We believe their counterfeit promises. Whatever I use to quiet my spirit, to tell myself I am accepted, to brighten my hope for tomorrow; whatever I take to my soul for such essential care other than the triune God, is indeed a false god. Even if no one sees it, God sees it. It is before him.
Now we are feeling the incalculable weight of this commandment and our inability to carry it through life with integrity. No human being will be justified before God by keeping this first commandment, nor any of the commandments (Rom. 3:20). Only our Lord Jesus Christ kept a perfect and unbroken affection for God. Only after we have obtained the Son’s righteousness by faith alone, only then can we begin to love God freely from the heart. Then the commandment will not be a terror to us, it will be the sentinel and the sun we always needed.
John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.