The 10 Commandments Series : #1 No Other Gods Before Me
This one question will never go away—how does the Old Testament relate to my life as a Christian? We’re not under the Old Covenant. Christ fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17). The Old Covenant is now obsolete, because a newer and a better one has arrived (Hebrews 8:13).
Nevertheless, Christians don’t feel comfortable just leaving the Old Testament behind, and rightly so. We need every word from God (Matthew 4:4, 2nd Timothy 3:16-17).
What, then, should be our relationship to the Law?
Reformers, like John Calvin, wrote about what is often referred to as the “Threefold Use of the Law.” Though we’re not under the Law in a salvific sense, the Law of Moses still has great use for the church. Those three uses are pedagogical, civil, and normative.
First, the law is our teacher (pedagogue) because it reveals to us our sinfulness and need for Christ. “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). The law reveals sin and points to our need for a Savior.
Second, the Law has civil value because its principles restrain evil. The U.S.A. was founded upon Christian principles. Our basic morality is rooted in the Ten Commandments. When used properly, the Ten Commandments provide society with a basic moral framework to function.
Third, the Law reveals what is pleasing to God. As we study the Law, we learn about the character and will of God. Some have called the Law a walking stick because it helps us follow Christ.
Over the next several weeks, KJM will release articles expounding the Ten Commandments because we believe these commands have great value for the church today. More importantly, each commandment, except the command to observe the Sabbath, have been re-communicated in the New Testament. So, they are very much still in full effect today for believers.
In this article, we look at commandment number one—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3
Salvation before Obedience
The children of Israel had been freed from Egyptian bondage. Moses and the Hebrews witnessed the Lord pour out amazing judgments upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. This culminated in God parting the Red Sea, passing the Israelites through, and crushing the Egyptian Army who pursued.
God saved Israel.
The Lord subsequently brings His people into the wilderness to officially make them His covenant people. But before He gives them the Ten Commandments, God reminds them, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2).
This is significant because salvation and a relationship with the Lord come prior to commands for obedience. In other words, God saves us first and then orders us to obey. It’s not the other way around. Israel wasn’t commanded to obey the Lord so that He would be their God. He said, “I am the Lord your God” and the commands followed. God saves His people and then calls them to lives of obedience.
This is how Paul structured many of his New Testament letters to the churches. He would write about our salvation (Ephesians 1-3, Romans 1-11, Colossians 1-2), followed by what it means to live as a Christian (Ephesians 4-6, Romans 12-16, Colossians 3-4). In fact, in the book of Romans, Paul’s most in-depth treatment of the saving work of God in the gospel, he doesn’t give a command until Romans 6:11. Until that point, the entire letter is completely about what God has done for us, not what God tells us to do.
Salvation under the old covenant is the same as salvation under the new covenant. It’s all of grace. We are justified by grace through faith in the promises of God. Then, and only then, are we called to obey.
What does the commandment mean?
Once the Lord reminds His people of His saving grace, He gives them the first of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). This is the first and greatest commandment. It’s just another way of saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). It’s all about singular devotion to and love for the Lord. Get this one right, and the others will follow. Get this one wrong and you break the other nine automatically.
The meaning of this verse is simple. Israel was commanded to worship the Lord and no one else. Like today, there were many gods to choose from in the days of Moses. The Hebrews were to reject those gods and focus on worshiping the Lord alone. That’s the basic meaning of this command.
Pressing in a little further, Israel was called to reject henotheism and embrace monotheism. Henotheism is the idea that we worship the Lord among all the other gods that exist. Monotheism is the idea that we not only worship the Lord alone but reject the existence of other gods. Many, if not all, of the Israelites would have believed in multiple gods. They were fresh out of Egypt. Egyptians were polytheists (belief in and worship of multiple gods). They also worshiped creation (Romans 1:21-23). Israel was not only commanded to refuse worshiping these gods, but to deny their existence altogether.
God is justified to demand such allegiance because He is our Creator and Redeemer. As Creator, He has the authority to command His creation to do whatever He pleases. The potter has the right to make whatever He wants with His clay (Romans 9:19-24). He has made us to worship Him. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:6-7).
God also deserves our total devotion because He has redeemed us. “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6). We have been saved “to the praise of his glorious grace.” So, then, by virtue of creation and redemption, we owe God our worship and devotion.
What does the commandment mean for us today?
It might be tempting to believe that this is a non-issue for the modern day, 21st century American believer. After all, we’re not enticed by the false gods of Egyptians or Canaanites like Israel was. We don’t bow down at the altar of Baal. We’re good on commandment number one, right?!
Not so fast.
Scripture’s plain meaning is rarely all it has to say. Passages like Exodus 20:3 have theological principles embedded in them. For example, Paul’s prohibition against getting drunk on wine (Ephesians 5:18) doesn’t mean we can get drunk on beer or liquor. There is a principle in that verse—namely, don’t become intoxicated at all. This extends to all alcoholic beverages and drugs.
So, when we see the command “You shall have no other gods before me”, we need to draw out theological principles and modern-day applications for our own benefit. One would be, Christians should completely devote their lives to Christ. Christ must be pre-eminent. Nothing and no one should be more important.
Consider the following questions drawn from such a principle.
- What is the most important thing in your life?
- Who is the most important person in your life?
- What are you most passionate about?
- What drives you to get out of bed in the morning?
- What or who brings you more joy than anything else?
These are just a few diagnostic questions to help you discern who or what is first in your life. If it isn’t the Lord, then are not upholding the first commandment. The first commandment demands that God maintain first place in our lives.
Don’t make Jesus just an add on to your life. He is either your entire life or He is nothing to you. God demands first place and our singular devotion. This is what it means to have no other gods before the Lord.
Brandon is the Associate Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN and leads the Recovery & Redemption ministry for the church. Brandon is married to Sherrie and has a daugher, Emma.