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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 01/26/1997
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
It never ceases to amaze me the way people discuss the question of the existence of God as if it were just another interesting academic issue, like whether Herschel Walker was the greatest running back in the history of college football or whether, if you can't afford a BMW, the Volvo, the Porsche, or the Peugeot confers the most status. Is there a god? How many? Can he be known? Has he spoken? I know all the arguments; I accept some of them; but I do not see the question pursued as the matter of life and death that it really is. And therefore as we look at the First Commandment this morning, I want to address first of all
Why is this commandment so important? Because if the universe was created by one Being who is all wise, all powerful, and eternal (as he must be if he is the creator of the universe)--and who is personal--and who made us human beings in his own image--and who has revealed himself to us--then I know who I am, I know why I am here, I know the meaning of life, and I know my own destiny. I am his creature, created to love and serve him, destined to enjoy him forever. And therefore I can live with purpose and with joy. I belong in this world, and life can go on with meaning.
But if any one of those propositions fails, the whole of that supposition of meaning and purpose collapses. If he is not the creator, he is either part of the world or unrelated to it, in which case he is either less than God or irrelevant to me. If he is not personal and we created in his image, then he is incomprehensible and unknowable and for those reasons irrelevant. If he has not spoken, if he has not revealed himself, then we could never find him out by seeking; it would be just the same as if he were not there. If he is not one, then he is in competition with other gods. How would we determine which one to serve? And why would it matter, since none of them would really be in control; they would just be bigger men.
In other words, if the God of the Bible is not there--if the Lord is not God--then the universe is blank, impenetrable, empty, and silent on the great questions of life. We can asks the questions of meaning, love, purpose, and identity, but the only answer available is the echo of our own questions coming back to us in total confusion and futility. If there is no personal God, then the universe is ultimately lawless, for there is on one who has the authority, the right, or the position to determine right from wrong for ourselves and for others. In such a Post-Modern Israel there is no king and every man does what is right in his own eyes--whenever he can get away with it. In such a world might makes right, the unscrupulous triumph, and the innocent (but what is innocence?) suffer, and life will quickly become "solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short."
In such a world there is no basis for any ultimate difference between love and hate, right or wrong, kindness or cruelty, the terrorist and Mother Teresa. In such a world, the cry that such distinctions MUST matter is simply a puny quirk of your will, increasingly absorbed by either noise or silence, which does not answer to (and is not answered by) anything that is real and strong and permanent. Therefore it is no wonder that in this world, which people increasingly believe to be the world we are describing, that cry becomes a scream of frustration and senseless rage. Listen--really listen--to the sounds of Heavy Metal, Punk, and Gangsta Rap, and you will realize that these kids understand all too well what it means to live in a secular world.
Therefore, the most important question you will ever face is this: IS THERE A GOD, AND DO I HAVE THE RIGHT ONE? It is therefore no accident that the First Commandment, this fountainhead of the Christian life, this doorway to the Law, in the first position, the position of strategic importance, is this Declaration, thundered from heaven, sealed with the smoke of Sinai, and inscribed by an unseen Hand not just on stone but on the conscience of the human race ever since: "I am the Lord your God: You shall have no other Gods before me." If you do not believe that he exists, it doesn't matter what you do. If you do believe, then everything must begin with this.
What exactly are we being commanded here? Clearly, you reply, that nothing else in life is to take precedence over God. And this is a right answer, as far as it goes. But unfamiliarity with the Hebrew idiom in which the commandment is expressed keeps most of us from seeing how radical the demand really is. To have no other gods "before me" does not so much mean "ahead of me" as "in my sight" or "in my presence." In other words, the idea is not that "You can have other gods as long as I am your favorite." Rather, there are to be no other gods allowed in your life at all. No competition for the throne of your heart is to be tolerated in any form from any thing. It is not, as the cliche goes, "God first, others second, self last." No. It is, "God first." Period. There is no second.
What is demanded in other words is not just that we put God first; what is demanded is a radical singleness of devotion. It is not good enough that God be the chief thing in life; he must be everything. As the infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and eternal creator, he deserves, and as the Lawgiver he demands, not just the largest part but ALL of our worship, love, service, obedience, and devotion. The First Commandment requires that in all these things we be simple and whole--wholehearted. They must be given to God alone.
But this radical demand is also a paradoxical demand that raises a theoretical problem. Are we not also told--by this same God in Scripture--that we are to honor the king, obey our parents, serve one another, and love our spouse, our neighbor, and our brother? Yes, we are. But how are we to do that? How can there be anything left over for these others if we have been interpreting the First Commandment correctly? In the answer to that question lies the key to the whole Law.
The answer is this: We keep the First Commandment when we realize that giving all of our love to God involves loving others for his sake; we break it whenever even legitimate other loves become independent areas of life with their own claims on us apart from his. Let me repeat: We keep the First Commandment when we realize that giving all of our love to God involves loving others for his sake; we break it whenever even legitimate other loves become independent areas of life with their own claims on us apart from his.
To make this principle meaningful, we need to look at some concrete examples of it in operation. Here is one. I rightly obey the government when I see this obedience as part of my obedience to God. In other words, I recognize in the government his authority delegated, so that when I obey it I am obeying him, and men only for his sake. But when the state becomes in my mind an independent realm with its own authority outside of and separate from his will, from the conditions and parameters he has set up in which the state is to operate, then the state has become an idol even if it has not commanded me to bow down to Caesar. For now the door has been opened to the theoretical possibility of my obeying it INSTEAD of God, something that could never have happened in the first way of conceiving it. For now I am giving part of my allegiance to God and part to the state, and this is idolatry even if his part is the biggest. (Conversely, when you are the person in authority, you have no right to exercise that authority outside of the same framework, as part of God's authority exercised within the bounds of his Law. When the state, a parent, a husband, or a teacher steps outside of those bounds, their right to be obeyed ceases.)
As a second example, I rightly love my wife when my love for her is part of my love for God, when I am loving her for his sake, because he made her and what he makes is precious to me; because he loves her and what he loves is precious to me; because he is love, and therefore I must love. When my love for her flows from the fact that he has all my love, it will be true love, within the bounds for love set by Love himself. But when love for a woman becomes an independent realm of life, outside and independent of my love for God, then it is no longer subject to his conditions. Then fornication or adultery become theoretically possible expressions of this lawless love. The woman becomes an idol when my love for her is in competition with my love for God even if no outward act of sin has occurred, even if she is "number two." For the door has been opened to my loving her INSTEAD of God--the door Adam apparently walked through with Eve when he ate the fruit she gave him.
I hope you are beginning to see how all of the Law flows from this spring. Each of the other commandments is simply the application of this principle to a particular area of life. In other words, when what is innocent in itself becomes an idol by being valued apart from its relationship to God and his part in it, it is already in principle cursed and on its way to being corrupted, polluted, perverted, and destroyed. We are usually graciously protected from seeing anything but the firstfruits and foretastes of this process in this life. Those who have seen those fruits in their full ripeness are in Hell. I also hope we are beginning to see the impossibility of salvation by works. Who keeps even the First Commandment? without which, even if we kept the other nine perfectly, we would still be idolaters, and hence not keeping any of them truly. And finally, I want us to see the Lord Jesus Christ, who kept this Commandment perfectly, and who therefore loved, obeyed, and served the Father perfectly in the other nine as well. This he did for us; and this, as we draw near to him and learn to trust in him, he will do in us through his Holy Spirit, helping us to know a taste of this kind of love and life even now.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams