[This post is part of a series on the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments come from the heart of God, expressing his character. They are not random or arbitrary but fitting with reality. We believe they are foundational for making disciples and living the Christian life.]
“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.”
Each of the Ten Commandments has something negative to say and something positive. The first commandment is stated in the negative: “You shall have noother gods before me.” Stated positively, the first commandment calls us to “know and trust God as the only true and living God” (New City Catechism, Question 9).We are called to worship one God only: Yahweh, the God of the Bible.
Each commandment has a narrow meaning and a broader meaning. The narrow meaning of the first commandment is the “forbidding of polytheism” (i.e., worshipping more than one God); the broader meaning is the “forbidding of any competition at all with the true God for our allegiance, obedience, and affection” (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 407.)
But who is this God who deserves our allegiance, obedience, and affection? The one true God is the God of the Bible, the God of Adam and Eve, of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the rest. The Old Testament reveals who the true God is; this is why Christians must read and study the Old Testament.
The New Testament also reveals the true God, especially as it reveals the identity of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is God, along with the Father and Holy Spirit. So, the first commandment is “first of all a demand for exclusive loyalty to God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Frame, p. 411).
How does the first commandment apply in our lives?
Here some more examples:
The first commandment forbids worshipping false gods. Examples can be found in major religions like Hinduism, Islam, and in Christian heresies like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness. These religions teach a god contrary to the true God revealed in the Bible.
The first commandment forbids god-substitutes: power (Hab. 1:11), money (Job 31:24; Matt. 6:24), politics (Dan. 2:21), entertainment (2 Tim. 3:4), food (Phil 3:19), and self (Deut. 8:17). This does not mean we should reject things like food or possessions; but we should enjoy these things with thanks to God, and do everything for his glory.
The first commandment forbids “divination, sorcery, necromancy, human sacrifice, and superstitions….Only the true God knows the future, and he is the only one to whom the believer should turn for supernatural help” (Frame, p.415). Christians should reject astrology, fortune-telling, psychic mediums, Ouija boards, and the like. However, does this mean we should reject everything touched by paganism or false religion: “…occasionally some useful knowledge can be found even in the context of false worship: an herb used in witch medicine, for example, may prove effective in treating illness. Yoga, removed from its religious context, may contain useful techniques for relaxation. Acupuncture and martial arts are often beneficial, though their origin is deeply religious and pagan” (Frame, p. 427).
The first commandment forbids false prophets and false teachers, who lead people away from worshipping the true God. Christians must be wary of people who teach contrary to the Bible. One example of this is secret societies like the Freemasons; the Masons teach a doctrine of God, calling him The Great Architect of the Universe, but this is not the one and only God of the Bible; Jesus is considered one of many possible saviors, alongside Buddha, Krishna, Allah, and Confucius.
Probably the most dangerous false teaching today is secularism. Secularism is a belief system, a religion–although it does not call itself a religion. Secularism is a worldview that basically says God does not exist and people will find their best life when they stop trying to get help from God and instead realize their own potential. Secularism has infected most areas of Western society, from college campuses to Disney movies. In John Frame’s opinion, “the biggest challenge to modern Christians, in the area of the first commandment, is that of secular schools.” For the Israelites and for Christians, education should be “God-saturated.” Frame says, “Children are to grow up in an environment where they cannot avoid the Word of God; it is always there, searching them, admonishing them, instructing them in the truth.” Secular schools do not provide these environments. This doesn’t necessarily mean families should not send children to secular schools. However, it does require that parents make extra effort at home, and that they lean on the support of their church, in order to counteract bad ideas and habits their kids pick up elsewhere. (See Frame pp. 437-438.)
The first commandment calls Christians to know the true and living God and to worship him alone. “If we worship God without taking any heed to God’s revelation of himself, we are certainly worshiping a product of our own minds, not the true God at all. So, it is important that we worship according to the truth” (Frame, p. 422).
If you were to walk into my house anytime soon, there is a high chance you’d hear the “Frozen II” soundtrack playing. My favorite song is “Into the Unknown.” It makes me think about God:
…There’s a thousand reasons I should go about my day
And ignore your whispers which I wish would go away
You’re not a voice, you’re just a ringing in my ear
I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you
Into the unknown
Into the unknown
Into the unknown
…Are you out there?
Do you know me?
Can you feel me?
Can you show me?
Where are you going? Don’t leave me alone
How do I follow you
Into the unknown?
I can’t hear these words and not think about how the “secret siren” is really the whispering voice of God, calling every person to know and follow Him; He is the ultimate Unknown, not because He’s unknowable, but because He’s too great and wonderful to ever know exhaustively. (**Spoiler*** The writers of Frozen II had something different in mind; the “secret siren” calling on Elsa is, we find out near the end, herself; she is the Person she’s been looking for. There’s more to unpack in that than I have time to write in this article, but in short, it’s truly sad.)
Speaking personally, I have struggled with knowing God, asking myself internally–and not often voicing my questions to others, especially since I’m supposed to know these things as a seminary professor–“Where is God? How do I know Him? I want to worship the true God, but Who is He, so that I may worship Him?”
One of the answers I’ve received over the years is good and true: “God is in the Bible; you can know Him by seeking Him in His Word.”
I wholeheartedly believe that the Bible is where God most clearly, authoritatively reveals Himself. Whenever the Word of God is read, preached, and communicated to others, people are getting the gold standard for the truth about God. There is no more sure source for knowing Him, and every other source of knowledge about God must be judged and tested by the Bible.
However, it is one thing to hear or read about God, and it is quite another thing to know Him. God is an objective reality about whom I can know factually, but He is also a Person whom I can know experientially. How do I get beyond the factual to the experiential?
I’m not going to say, “By leaving the Bible behind.” No, that would be like sailors deciding to venture into the ocean with no map or compass, or, for parents, like trying to walk safely through our kids’ rooms at night (i.e., avoiding stubbed toes or stabbed soles) with no phone-light. We will not find God apart from the “lamp for our feet and light for our paths,” His Word (Psalm 119:105).
To know God experientially, I must know him presently. I must take what I know about God according to Scripture as a present reality, knowing and believing and attuning myself to His presence, expanding my conscious awareness so that I’m seeing not just myself in my study at my desk typing this article, but recognizing that I am not alone, and that I am in another’s presence. I must go beyond remembering what He’s done in the past, or hoping for what He will do in the future, and recognize Him as the Living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and also the God of me.
I’ve said we need to know God factually and experientially. Another way to say that is “objectively and subjectively.” Objectively, because the God of the Bible is real, and not up to our imaginations. Subjectively, because if anyone wants to know Him personally, he or she must be personally invested. We know God objectively by listening to what He reveals about Himself in the Bible; we know Him subjectively by opening up to him, by letting Him in.
We see this truth in Israel’s central prayer: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5)
The Lord is one. He is your God. Give yourself to Him completely, with all of your being.