The First Commandment

Exodus 20:3

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2016

You shall have no other gods before me.

Last week, we began a study on the Ten Commandments, the most famous law code in history. They are also the basis of all morality.  The Ten Commandments were given in the context of the greatest theophany in the whole Bible.  God appeared to the entire nation in a spectacular demonstration of God’s power and glory.  There was an earthquake.  The whole mountain was on fire.  There was a thick cloud and a lot of smoke and out of the fire God spoke audibly to two million people.

Most of us will NEVER hear God speak audibly to us our entire lives but whole nation heard Him speak audibly all at once.  It was fascinating but it was also frightening.  They thought they all were going to die.  They moved back from the mountain.  As the mountain quakes, they began to quake.  This was the only time in history that God ever did something like this.

Exodus 20 begins saying, “God spoke all of these words”.  What did He speak?  He spoke the Ten Commandments from the top of this mountain.  He spoke with a loud voice.  It had to be loud for all of the people to hear him at the bottom of the mountain.  The Ten Commandments are the only part of the Bible that is not only inspired but literally dictated by God.

The Ten Commandments were given in the context of a relationship.  The second verse in the chapter says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (20:2).  The Ten Commandments were only given after the Jews were redeemed out of Egypt.  Notice that He says, “I am the Lord YOUR GOD”.  God redeemed them out of their bondage.  They did not redeem themselves.  God rescued them and now He gives them some commands to follow.  God has redeemed us by the blood of Christ and He has given us some commandments as well.

The Ten Commandments give us God’s top ten lists of sins and are divided into two parts, which may be the reason they were written on two tablets of stone. The first four deal with God.  They are religious.  The last six deal with people.  They are moral duties.

Today, we will begin looking at the First Commandment.  God said to the Jews “You shall have no other gods before me” (NIV).  We will be talking about idolatry today.  We do not worship statues in this country but in other countries they still do.  If you travel to other countries, you can still find temples to other gods.  In America, we do not worship a golden calf but we still have idolatry.

A recent hit TV show was even called “American Idol.”  Idolatry takes many forms.  There are some modern day forms of it. The temptation to idolatry is still very powerful, even today.  The NT warns Christians to flee idolatry (I Corinthians 10:14; I John 5:21).   This command is repeated in the NT.

As we look at the First Commandment, two things immediately stand out.  First, this commandment is SHOCKING.  This is radical.  It is exclusive.  It is intolerant.  It is politically incorrect.  We live in a pluralistic society. God does NOT say that that He respects all gods and religions.  He does NOT say that He does not care what god we worship any god as long as we live a moral life and do not try to hurt anyone.

He does NOT say that all religions are equal.  They lead to the same goal and it doesn’t matter which one you have (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, etc.).  Instead, he says, “You shall have no other gods before me”.  This commandment is counter-cultural.  The First Amendment says you can have as many gods as you want or no god at all.  We have religious freedom in America.  The First Commandment says “You shall have no other gods before me.” Second, this commandment is also IMPORTANT.  How do we know it is important?  There are three reasons.

Importance of the First Commandment

1) The sin of idolatry was first on the list

This commandment would not make most people’s top ten lists of sins.  A lot of people think how you live and treat people is far more important than what God you worship or what your religion is.  It is not even a sin.  It is a constitutional right but God looks at it very differently.

God not only had this commandment on his top ten list, He put it first. He made it number one.  He even put this one above adultery and murder.  It must be extremely important.  We would not see this as the number one sin but God views it as the greatest sin.

The greatest sin in the Bible by far is idolatry.  It is a sin that God hates.  It is described in Scripture as an abomination.  Deuteronomy 27:15 says, “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol–a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of skilled hands–and sets it up in secret.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!” (NIV).

Jeremiah 7:30-31 says, “The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

2) The sin of idolatry was punishable by death.

Exodus 22:20 says, “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the Lord must be destroyed” (NIV).  Deuteronomy 13:6-11 says, “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them.

Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again” (NIV).

This shows how serious God views idolatry.  Under the Law of Moses, it was a capital crime.  Idolaters were to be stoned to death.  If your own family member was involved, you were to be the first one to put them to death.  Your were not even to let your own personal feelings for loved ones get in the way of the punishment for idolatry.

Should we enforce this command today?  Should idolatry be a capital crime today?  There are some Christians who believe that the Mosaic Law should be enforced today in America.  They are called Christian Reconstructionists.  They are also called theonomists.  They believe that we should be doing the same thing ISIS does today, giving the death penalty to homosexuals.

They base it on the Bible.  Leviticus says “If a man lies with a man as he lies with a woman, both of them shall be put to death.  Their blood shall be upon their head” (20:13). There is only one problem.  The NT says that we are not under the law.  It has been abolished as a system.  What ISIS does is barbaric.  They kill gays by throwing them off of buildings.  Why was idolatry punishable by death in the OT?

This was during a unique period of time on the earth.  It was during the period of the kingdom. God was working on the earth in a way that He is not working today.  We do not have a temple or tabernacle today.  The Jews had a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud every day.  They ate manna from heaven every day.  God is not doing those things today.  In the Lord’s Prayer we see the words “Thy kingdom come”.  The kingdom of God is not on earth right now.  It will be one day when Jesus returns.  When Jesus returns, there will not be freedom of religion.

3) The sin of idolatry excludes people from heaven

The NT has some strong language about idolatry.  I Corinthians 6:9-10 says, Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (ESV). 

Paul says that this is a group of people that will not be in heaven.  Idolaters are put in the same category as people who commit sexual sin.  It is in the same category as a drunkard or a thief.  God does not look at idolaters as poor people in pagan lands who just don’t know any better.  He says they will not enter the kingdom.

I Corinthians 5:11 says, “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (NIV)   That is a verse we do not read in the church today and very few people actually do it but it is in Scripture.  Again, it shows the seriousness of idolatry.

Definition of Idolatry

What is idolatry?  It is worshiping another god.  It is worshiping anything or anyone other than the one true God.  “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Jews just came out of the land of Egypt.  That was a land full of idolatry.  The ancient Egyptians worshiped all kinds of gods and goddesses.  The land was full of temples.  They even worshiped the Pharaoh.

The Egyptians were an advanced civilization in many respects, in terms of science and technology.  They built the pyramids but their religion was quite primitive.  Now Egyptians today do not worship many gods.  Egypt is a Muslim country but everyone in the ancient world worshiped idols.  God tells his people in the First Commandment that they were to be different.  They were to have no other gods.  They were not to do what everyone else was doing.

What is the definition of a god?  How do you know if you are worshipping another god?  An idol is anything that comes before God or takes the place of God in our life.  The biggest myth about idolatry is that it only takes on form.  There are many different kinds of idols.  Idols are not just physical idols.  It is possible to have idols without physical images.  John Calvin said that “the human heart is a factory of idols.”[1]  It is an idol factory.  We manufacture idols in our mind.

Ezekiel 14:3 speaks of idols of the heart.  Idols can be mental, as well as manual.  Idols of the heart are much harder to detect.  Most people do not even know they have an idol in their life.  They are also harder to destroy.  It is easy to smash a physical idol.  How do you know if you have an idol in your life?  They are invisible.

Diagnosing Heart Idolatry

1) What is the most important thing in your life?

What is the single most important thing in your life right now?  One preacher had a sermon on The First Commandment called, “Who is on first?”  What do you place at the center of your life?  Does Christ comes first or does something else or someone else come first?  If it does, you are worshiping an idol.

Some put pleasure first.  The Bible speaks of some who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (II Timothy 3:4).  They are guilty of sexual idolatry.  Now there is nothing wrong with pleasure.  God created it.  He created it for us to enjoy (I Timothy 6:17) but some put it first and make it a god.  They worship pleasure rather than the God who created pleasure.

Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek FIRST his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. This verse contains both a command (seek first his kingdom) and a promise (all these things will be added to you).   We are not to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness second or third but we are to seek it first.  Idolatry is putting second thing first.

This is radical, especially in the context.  We are not even supposed to put daily necessities first (food to eat, clothes to wear, bills to pay).  We are to seek God first.  He is not saying that we do not take care of physical needs but that we do not put them first.  It is a question of priorities.

For some people, the most important thing in their life is their job.  They are workaholics.  They have work idolatry.  They turn their career into an idol.  An idol is what you put first in your life. What comes first in your life?

Anything that you put first in your life, besides God, is an idol. Having a hobby is not idolatry but some people don’t come to church because they would rather hunt or fish.  Other things are more important.  Recreation comes first.  God comes last.

In some circles, families come first.  Kids come first.  They become the center of our lives. God does not come first.  Jesus said, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37).

We are supposed to love our parents, our siblings, our husband or wife but we shouldn’t love them more than we love God. Sometimes children and spouses can become idols. Anything that you love more than God is an idol.

Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all of your mind” (Matthew 22:37).  He was quoting a passage from Deuteronomy.  We are not only to love God, we are to love God with every part of our being. We are not to love God just with our lips but with our hearts.

We are not just to love God with our emotions but our will and our mind.  Some only love God with their emotions and their mind is not engaged.  We are also commanded to love God with ALL of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

2) Are you struggling with some type of an addiction?

An idol is something that people serve. It controls people.  Matthew 6:24 says, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

How is an addiction related to idolatry?  An addiction becomes the most important thing in a person’s life.  If you have an addiction something, it rules your life. It controls your life.  You serve the addiction and do whatever it says.  It becomes a god.  You can’t serve God and addictions at the same time.

How do you know if you have an addiction? What are some of the signs of addiction?  An addict will do something at ANY cost.  You can’t stop.  You hide the problem from friends.  It gets worse as time goes on.  Your relationship with other people is affected.  You become a different person.

3) Do you depend on people or things to make you happy?

The Bible calls covetousness idolatry (Colossians 3:5).  What makes covetousness idolatry? What is the connection between greed and idolatry?  Greedy people think if they just get one more thing, it will make them happy but it never does.  Then, they go after the next thing they desire.  It becomes an idol, because the person relies on things to make them happy.

Some do not rely on things but on people to make them happy.  That is why many get married and there is nothing wrong with marriage but God is the only one who can be our ultimate source of happiness.  The ultimate source of our happiness should not be things or people.  It should be God alone.

Jesus said, “Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14 NIV).  Jesus is the only one who can really satisfy all of our needs.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, 11, 8.

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