The First Commandment

As we stand, let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we need to hear your voice. By your Holy Spirit help us not only to hear but to take to heart what you have said, and to shape our lives by it. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Please take a seat. It’s great to have Ollie Nicolson as our new head of music. One of the things he’s already been saying to some of us is that it’s very useful if preachers can sum up the thrust of their sermon in less than ten words. For the music team, it’s a great aid to planning the music for a service. It’s valuable for those who are listening because apparently you don’t always remember every word of a sermon (though I find that hard to believe). And it’s useful for the preacher himself, because it helps if he knows what he’s talking about. Well, Ollie (and all of you) this morning that’s the easy bit. I have eight words. Here they are:

You shall have no other gods before me.

That’s Deuteronomy 5.7 - The First Commandment. Last week David introduced this new series on the Ten Commandments, and today we’re on the first of them. And it’s the big one. I suppose I could say that the thrust of this message is: we must not have any other gods but the Lord. But that’s ten words, and it’s better just to stay with the Lord’s direct word to his people – to us:

You shall have no other gods before me.

That’s it. But it’s no good me just repeating those eight words over and over, so I want to ask four questions that should help us to think clearly about what is meant by them, so that we can take them to heart more deeply than ever. Before we get into those, though, I want us to notice something about this command. The reality of God is assumed. Indeed, that’s true of the Bible as a whole, from its opening words in Genesis:

In the beginning, God…


There are no great philosophical arguments here trying to prove the existence of God. Why is that? Imagine for a moment two talking fleas on the back of a great lion. They’re discussing whether it’s true what some fleas say, that they’re being carried along by a great lion, or whether, as some fleas argue, the lion doesn’t exist. The lion overhears this heated debate. Why should the lion feel any need to try and prove his existence? He could do so, I suppose, by flicking the fleas off his back with his tail and treading on them, but that wouldn’t serve much purpose. The living God, the creator of all things, does not need to prove to us (his creatures) that he exists. Who do we think we are, that we should demand that of him? And yet in his love, and grace, and mercy, he has revealed himself through his word and in his Son, to those with ears to hear and eyes to see. So, to our questions:

1. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO ‘HAVE A GOD’?

You shall have no other gods before me.

Notice another thing that’s assumed here: we will have a god or gods. There is no option available to have no god, whatever those who identify as ‘atheist’ might hope. What does it mean to ‘have a god’? It means to have something in which we trust. Or to expand on that, it means to have something or someone we love, trust and obey. What takes top priority in our lives? What do we count on? What demands do we try and satisfy as if our lives depend on it? That is our god – or one of them. Take money as an example. Jesus said:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

That’s Matthew 6.24. If money is our god, we’ll love it. It’ll take a central place in our hearts. We’ll desire it, and be preoccupied with it – whether we’ve got much or not. We’ll put our trust in it. We’ll rely on it as the answer to our needs and the solution to our problems. We’ll obey its demands. As Jesus warns, we will serve it. Whatever it takes to get it, we’ll do. Whatever it demands, we’ll give. Whatever sacrifices it asks, we’ll make. We’ll love it, trust it and obey it. We’ll have money as our God. And Jesus is explicit - we can’t love, trust and obey money, and at the same time love, trust and obey the living God. We can have more than one small ‘g’ god. We can try and serve, say, money and alcohol at the same time. But we can’t have the living God as one of the gods in our collection. If we’re going to have him, then we must love, trust and obey him alone.

2. WHAT ‘OTHER GODS’ ARE THERE?

You shall have no other gods before me.

What other gods are there? Because surely there’s only one God? Well yes, only one capital ‘G’ God. Only one true and living God. Only one God worthy to be loved, trusted and obeyed. But when we understand that a god is something in which we trust, then it’s clear that there’s a vast array of small ‘g’ gods. And they’re real gods not because they’re worthy of worship, but because we worship them. We make them our gods. There’s another word for these small ‘g’ gods, of course. Idols. We make them our idols.

One kind of false god is a wrong idea of the one God. If we decide who God is and what he’s like, and ignore or by-pass what he’s told us and shown us about himself, then our remade God is just an idol and not the living God. Such is the all-affirming god of western liberalism who requires no repentance and no life-changing faith. Richard Neibuhr summed up this other god so well when he said:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross. [H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America]

Then there are all the other gods we can choose from, both natural and supernatural. Money is just one of those on the shelves of the supermarket aisle marked ‘gods’. And as Tim Keller says in his book Counterfeit Gods:

Anything can be an idol, and everything has been an idol…Counterfeit gods always disappoint, and often destructively so…Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.

But some idolatry does have a supernatural dimension. Some idolatry comes from the pit of hell. The Old Testament scholar Chris Wright draws attention to the apostle Paul’s teaching on food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8, and comments:

The façade of idolatry can mask the demonic, and Christians need to be aware of both in their choices and actions.

In the end, though, all these other gods are made by us. We make them gods when we worship them – when we begin to love, trust and obey them. So when we have other gods, we are the god-makers. We are the god of gods, because we made our gods. We’re the self-made man who worships his creator. No wonder other gods, in Tim Keller’s words:

… always disappoint, and often destructively so.

Because when we’ve cut ourselves off from the one living and true God, we disappoint and destroy ourselves. We urgently need to know the one true and living capital ‘G’ God. So:

3. WHO IS THE ONE GOD WE SHOULD HAVE?

You shall have no other gods before me.

That word me is about as small as a word can be, but boy is it powerful in the mouth, so to speak, of the living God! ‘Me’ tells us that God is personal. He is He. Not It. And ‘me’ tells us that this personal God speaks.

You shall have no other gods before me.

This is his voice. This is God speaking. Moses reminded the Israelites just before about their meeting with him at Mount Sinai after their Exodus from slavery in Egypt – this is in Deuteronomy 5.4-6:

The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire…He said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”

So this God who must be our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As Jesus said to the Sadducees who were challenging him and who said there was no resurrection:

“You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God…And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

That’s in Matthew 22.29-32. And this God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also the God of the Exodus, as we’ve just seen. And this same God has now revealed himself to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So at the beginning of his Gospel, Mark tells us (Mark 1.9-11):

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God in three persons, three in one and one in three. The Trinity. This is the God who in the person of his Son became flesh, and went to the cross to save us from our idolatry and immorality, and who was raised from the dead to rule, and who has promised to return as our Judge, our Saviour, and our Lord for ever. It is this God, the one true and living God, the God of the Bible from beginning to end, it is this God who is the one and only God we must have.

4. HOW THEN SHOULD WE LIVE IN RELATION TO HIM?

There’s a lifetime of joyful exploration in answer to that, of course. But let me mention three things.

i. We must have only one God.

You shall have no other gods before me.

Before me means literally ‘in my face’. So this is deeply personal to God. How dare we even think of having any other god – right in his face? So no other gods for us. Because we may be professing faith in Christ but there’s a deep danger for us here. Its technical name is ‘syncretism’. It means trying to combine the worship of different gods into one. And it’s a continual spiritual battle us for to stop doing it. We don’t reject Christ. We believe in him. But what other gods are we tempted to try and worship alongside him? Kevin de Young has written a short book called The 10 Commandments: what they mean, why they matter, and why we should obey them. He says:

Syncretism was a perennial problem in Israel. God’s people were constantly tempted to make their faith a both/and religion, when God insisted on worship as an either/or proposition…There can be no ‘and’ in our relationship with God.

I remember beginning to learn that at school in my early teens when Christ crucified and risen seized my allegiance and took my soul gloriously captive. I remember learning more about that when I was student, and for the first time the Holy Spirit enabled me to give away a significant proportion of the not much money that I had at the time. That was a great liberation from slavery to the god of money – though that’s a temptation along with many others that never lets up. Not God and money. Just God. I remember much more recently learning this lesson even more deeply when God showed me that I was tempted to make an idol even of Christian ministry and church growth, and that all I need is him alone. Not God and another god of ministry. Just God We must have only one God.

ii. He must be the centre of our lives. We need a spiritual Copernican Revolution. We must stop thinking that everything revolves around us, and we must learn that the living God and his glory are at the centre of everything. We aren’t fleas. We have the amazing dignity of being men and women created in the image of the living God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. But he’s the centre of everything, not us. We revolve around him. He must be the centre of our lives.

iii. We should love, trust and obey him. Jesus said – and says to us:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.

That’s Matthew 22.37. We can only do this by the grace and mercy of God through the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross and the gift of the Spirit. But we have those when we trust in Christ. If we don’t, today is the right day to start.

You shall have no other gods before me.

Put your trust in him today. And if we’ve already done that, we must get on with loving him, trusting him, and obeying him.

I’m re-reading the astounding prophecy of Hosea. I commend it to you – although it’s strong meat and if you take it to heart you’ll never be the same again. In Hosea, God likens his relationship with his people to a marriage. He is faithful. His people are not. This First Commandment makes clear to us that we must not be adulterous in our relationship with the living God. We must love him.

You shall have no other gods before me.

Let’s take those eight words away with us today, and live them. And if we can manage more than eight, let’s take away the opening line of our final famous old song. I’m going to make the first verse our prayer as we close. Let’s pray:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heartNaught be all else to me, save that thou artThou my best thought, by day or by nightWaking or sleeping, thy presence my light

Let’s stand and sing that, from the heart.

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