Last week, we tried to answer two important questions about the 10 commandments (or, the Decalogue), namely: (i) is it still relevant? (ii) why should we keep them even today?
Today, we are going to look at the first two commandments and see how this applies to us. We will look at what each commandment requires of us and why God has given it, what common issues we face in obeying them, and some helpful ways to think as we seek to obey them.
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
This is the very first commandment. But that’s not because it is better than all the others. Rather, it is the most fundamental of all — one that every follower of God should buckle down on in their own lives. If we fail to keep this command, we will fail — or have failed — to keep the rest.
Now, the underlying issue in the struggles we have in our Christian life has to do with a struggle to know and love God the way He deserves to be known and loved. Kevin DeYoung puts it this way: The most important aspect of our faith is not how hard we believe, but in whom we believe.
If we fail to keep this first command, we will fail — or have failed — to keep the rest
The first commandment calls for exclusivity: worship God and Him alone. Why? As the One who rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, Yahweh (LORD) has a claim over them (see vv. 1-2). And so, He calls them to worship Him.
In other words, God is saying that they have no reason to look to any other gods in worship. It should be Him — and Him alone. No other gods.
I believe there are two reasons why many of us struggle in keeping this commandment.
There is no Christian who doesn’t ‘know’ that God should be first in their life. We have been taught all our lives to put God first. The issue is also not that we don’t know God enough or realise that we need Him in our lives.
Again, Kevin DeYoung makes a helpful comment: He says that the reason we fail to keep this commandment is because, “we want God and something else”. That “something else” can be different for each.
For some, it can be the bank account. For others, it’s the job — or education, desires, family, etc. These are some of our idols. An idol, as Timothy Keller puts it, is “anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give”.
We all know that we want God. But we are not okay with just God; we want something more. We treat God as the One we turn to on Sundays and for all other Christian-ish things. And then, in every other moment, we turn to the “something else”. We always seek that “something else”, hoping to satisfy the deepest needs of our lives in that moment.
What God is trying to show here is precisely the opposite: there is never going to be anything in this world that will ever satisfy the deepest needs of our lives. Only God can do that. And He has no interest in being one important person — or thing — among many in your life. God cannot be worshipped rightly if he is worshipped alongside any other.
There is never going to be anything in this world that will ever satisfy the deepest needs of our lives. Only God can do that
A good analogy to explain this commandment is marriage: you cannot have a both-and relationship with your spouse. Most married couples will tell you there is no realistic scenario where you can tell your spouse, “Babe, I love you so much. I think you’re the most beautiful human being. But… there is this other person. I love him/her too. He/she also makes my heart happy. I was hoping the three of us can be in this together,” and expect your partner to respond well.
So it is with God. Love is at the very heart of the first commandment. If we truly love God, we will love no one — or nothing — else like we love God.
The second issue, however, is much deeper. Even more people struggle to love God exclusively because they are dead in their sins. None of us is naturally capable of keeping the commandments. By birth, we are children of wrath — separated from God (Ephesians 2). Our lives were marked with sinfulness. We were evildoers and without any way to love God.
But praise God, because Jesus turned it around for us. When we believe in His finished work on the cross and truly repent of our sins, we are saved. There is no longer a divide between God and us. Jesus, the perfect mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5), has given us access to God (Ephesians 2:18, 3:12; Hebrews 10:19).
Note that Jesus also says, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him” (John 14:7). The implication is this: Today, there is only one way to know God — through Jesus Christ.
If you don’t know God in Christ, then you don’t know Him at all. Only in and through Jesus can man worship God. The struggle for many churchgoers in worshipping God alone is because they have yet to truly know God.
For a believer, this extends to reflect on how we respond to our sins as we worship God. If we are living in sin, we will struggle to worship. When sin is left unrepented, we are actually loving and worshipping the sin — certainly more than God. And that hinders worship. A true worshipper of God is the one who truly enjoys freedom from sin in Christ.
When sin is left unrepented, we are actually loving and worshipping the sin — certainly more than God
The place to start if we’re serious about obeying the first commandment is to rely on the Spirit to examine and expose our heart. John Calvin gives us four helpful diagnostic questions to help us reveal the gods in our lives:
“You shall not make for yourself a 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 or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The second commandment lays down two explicit prohibitions:
The OT gives plenty of examples of God’s people creating man-made gods for worship. Remember the story of the golden calf? Note that Aaron proclaimed a feast to Yahweh. The people declared that these were the gods who brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4-5).
Actually, they were not worshipping the wrong God. They were worshipping Yahweh (LORD), their God. The problem was the way they were worshipping. If the first commandment is about worshipping the right God, the second calls us to worship the right God the right way.
We are not to create an image to represent God in any form. Another thing that we’re prone to is to take symbols and treat them as if they have some kind of spiritual power.
For example, some especially attribute praise to the pulpit from which the preacher preaches, as if that is the only place through which God can speak through a preacher. Similarly, I have seen people do the same with church buildings, or an image of Jesus hanging on their walls, or a chain with a cross.
If the first commandment is about worshipping the right God, the second calls us to worship the right God the right way
People kiss these items, pray to God holding them, hoping that these representations give them access to God — that these things have some real powers. But God clearly shows us that we are not to worship God in this manner.
There are a few reasons why God is particular about the manner of worship. Kevin DeYoung is helpful in listing them out:
And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
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