The Ten Words: The First
“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:7).
Over half a century ago, the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones, minister at Westminster Chapel, London, aimed the penetrating light of the first commandment at modern idolatry, saying, “There are many people today who never darken the doors of a place of worship but who say they believe in the love of God. Yet they reject the gospel. They do not believe in a God who is wrathful against sin; a God who must punish sin; a God who sent his own Son….”
Refusing to believe in the God who made them, they believe in a god they have made.
One on hand, such people are the spiritual kin of all who bow down before gods carved of wood. They are idolaters, of the same seed as stone worshippers. They too adore a god of their own imagining, their own crafting, a counterfeit god making counterfeit promises to enslave their souls to the father of lies. Abraham was once of this stock. But God graciously visited him and heaven rejoiced (Josh. 24:2).
On the other hand, many of the people Jones identifies are the ones who should know better. Not all grew up in idolatry. As children, many of them heard of the true and living God: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. They heard of the God who judges sin and saves sinners. Many even received the sign of his covenant, but they “were not united by faith with those who listened” (Heb. 4:2).
In fact, the most frequent pastoral use of the first commandment throughout scripture is when prophets lay it down as a straight edge to expose the crooked idolatry of those who once had drawn near to God.
A foundational example of this is the Lord’s ministry to Israel while they were yet in Egypt. After four hundred years of bondage, God rose to answer their cries, but it was not their faithfulness that moved him. Through Ezekiel the Lord recalls their idolatrous condition even prior to the exodus:
“And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’ But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:7-9)
Do not miss the import of that last verse. God’s interest in his own glory explains the exodus. He honors his name even if no one else will. As God, he will glorify God (Rom. 3:4). But God’s glory is not incompatible with his grace; he delivers Israel for Israel too. He delivers them not because they know he alone is God, but to make known to them he alone is God. Redemption itself is a revelation of God (Heb. 1:2). Thus, in Exodus 12:12, on the night of the first Passover, the Lord says, “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.”
Herein lies an important lesson for all our apologetic endeavors. The scriptures do not invite the atheist nor the idolator into an empty room where he or she, now free of their experience as a human being in the world, can finally evaluate claims for the one true and living God. There is no such room. The one true God is always an inescapable reality for man. He is always present, pressing himself on man in the context of creation and redemption, not because God’s existence is dependent on these mighty acts, but rather because man’s existence is dependent on them. Thus, God makes himself known to man not in the empty room of contemplation, but in the wonderful world in which man lives and moves and has his being – creation – and in the wonderful promise in which men might find salvation – adoption through God’s Son. You see, man’s creatureliness and sin are also always an inescapable reality for man.
This is why the same faith that justifies is the faith that obeys. The moment we believe on Christ and his righteousness is imputed to us, at that moment, that same faith has secured our obedience to the first commandment. We have begun worshipping the one true God because we have taken him at his Word, recognizing his authority speaking therein.
Paul pulls all of this together in his letter to the Thessalonians: “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
What then is the best way to fight idolatry in our own lives and keep the commandment? What is the best way to call unbelievers to the one true and living God? What is the best way to reclaim those who have turned away to serve gods of their own imaginings?
The answer is the same for all of us: declare to your soul and to all souls that salvation from sin’s curse comes from the only true God. He alone, through his only begotten Son, has judged and defeated on the cross all the counterfeit gods who would lead us to hell by lies. Serve God and God only.
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.