“The First Commandment: Have No Other Gods” (The Ten Commandments)
“You shall have no other gods.” OK, that sounds pretty simple. “Have No Other Gods”? Yeah, I can do that. After all, I don’t bow down to any idols of wood or stone. I don’t worship the Buddha or that crazy god of the Muslims, Allah. No, I’m a good American! You won’t catch me worshiping any other gods than the good old-fashioned American God, you know, the Big Guy upstairs. So I guess I’m good to go. If the rest of these Ten Commandments are as easy as the First, then I’m in pretty good shape.
Wrong! It is precisely the First Commandment that will undo you! It is the First Commandment that will condemn you and convict you as the sinner that you are. It is always the First Commandment that we break whenever we break any of the other commandments. For the First Commandment is running through all of the others. Whenever we break one, we are at the same time breaking the First.
How so? How can this be? I mean, like I say, I’m not some pagan out in the jungles of New Guinea. I’m not a Muslim. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not a Hindu. How can I be worshiping a false god? How can I be guilty of idolatry?
Here’s how. It’s right there in this matter of “having other gods.” I’ll let Luther explain. This is from the Large Catechism, where he writes: “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. . . . Now I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”
Well, now this opens up the field of false gods to more than just Allah or Buddha, doesn’t it? You see, it’s whatever you set your heart on as your highest good. That is the god that you have, that is the god that you worship. The god you have could be all sorts of things: money, fame, power, pleasure. It doesn’t even have to be bad things. Indeed, it is very easy to make good things into your god: success, security, recreation–even your family, that can become your god, if you let it overshadow or become more important to you than faith in and loyalty to the one true God. Good things, the things you enjoy or desire and seek after–they very easily can become your god. And that then is idolatry. That is having another god. And that is a breaking of the First Commandment.
How is it with you? Where does your heart always return to? What is it that you’re always seeking after? Let’s start with food, clothing, and shelter. OK, those are the basic necessities of life. Those are the “gotta have them” stuff. But do they become our god, that is, our highest priority? You know what Jesus said about these things: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
The First Commandment is about keeping first things first. And the first thing, the first and foremost thing, is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Where that is not kept first and foremost, that is sin. Whenever we are not fearing God’s threats against breaking his commandments, whenever we do not take them seriously, we are sinning. Whenever we are not loving God with all our heart and soul and mind, we are sinning. Whenever we are not trusting in the Lord to take care of us and to provide for us, that, frankly, is sin. And we all are guilty. We all break the First Commandment on a daily basis.
What is your god? What is it that you keep coming back to as your top thing? Is it to have the good life? To eat, drink, and be merry? Is it to achieve the American dream, to have a nice house and two cars in the garage and a chicken in every pot? Now there is nothing wrong with those things in themselves. But that is why they can become a type of subtle idolatry, the kind you don’t even notice. Do they become your god, in effect? Do you lose sight of following the ways of the Lord and seeking after him, because you are so occupied with these other things? “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” That is our diagnostic test. That is our mirror, to see when we are getting off-track. “You shall have no other gods before me,” the Lord says.
Think back to Adam and Eve. Did they fear, love, and trust in God above all things? No, not in that most crucial test of whether or not they would keep God’s command. The Lord had been very good and kind and generous to them, providing them with everything they need, all sorts of trees, filled with fruit, set in a beautiful garden. And the Lord had given them just one command, with a threat attached: “You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Adam and Eve, you had one job! But did they listen, did they obey? No. They did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. They did not fear his threat. “Oh, no,” the serpent said, “you shall not surely die. God is just telling you this so you do not become like God, knowing good and evil.” You see, at the heart of all sin is our desire to be our own god, to make our own decisions about good and evil. “I’ll decide what’s right or wrong–for me! I want to be my own god!” So then, Adam and Eve did not love God with all their heart. And they did not trust God, either. They thought that God was holding out on them, depriving them of some good that they felt entitled to have. Thus Adam and Eve broke the First Commandment, and that is the original sin, the sinful nature that we all inherit and we all give in to, whenever we do what we want to do and not listen to God.
Or take ancient Israel as an example. The Lord had been good to them. He had made a covenant with their fathers to bless them. And so the Lord brought his people out of bondage in Egypt. He even introduces the Ten Commandments by reminding them of this: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And yet what did Israel do so soon after? They made for themselves another god, the golden calf, and worshiped it. They complained about the Lord and his servant Moses. They grumbled and groused and complained. They did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
You see, we all do this. We each set ourselves up as our own god. It is the essence of sin, in whatever shape it takes. And so we need this mirror of the Ten Commandments, and especially the First Commandment, to show us this about ourselves. We need to know that we are sinners. We need to know that in ourselves we lack the righteousness that makes us pleasing and acceptable to God. That kind of righteousness must come from elsewhere, from outside of us, if we are to be right with God.
And the good news is, it does! Jesus Christ–he is the one who puts us right with God. God himself comes to the rescue, in the person of the eternal Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There is hope for you, my friend! Jesus is the friend of sinners! He got the “fear, love, and trust” thing right, as a man, in our place. There is a man, one man only, who keeps this First Commandment and all the other commandments as they should be kept. It is Jesus. And this same man Jesus goes to the cross for you, to pay for all your sins. Because he is the holy Son of God, he can do this. His blood can cover a world of sinners, all of us sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who have ever lived. He is your Savior, dear friend! Your sins are forgiven and covered because of him! And his rising from the dead assures you that death will not be the end for you, all you who are trusting in Christ for your salvation and are baptized in his name. There is life ahead, new life and eternal life, stretching out before you!
And now you have the Spirit, given you in your baptism. The Holy Spirit, who gives you a new nature, new desires and, yes, even a new ability to keep the commandments. You will still sin and fall short, of course, and that is why we will always need God’s forgiveness every day of this life. But we do now want to please God and love and serve him, according to our new nature. The First Commandment stands at the head of the list now for the new people of God. We do fear God and take his threats seriously. We do love God, because we know how much he loves us, even sending his own Son to be our Savior. We do trust in God above all things. We know he will take care of us and provide for us, even when the circumstances in our life may not look like it. We trust in God’s goodness, because he has shown us the ultimate good, in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So the First Commandment does a couple of things in our life now. First, it reminds us that we are still sinners, in need of a righteousness not our own. And that opens us up then to hear and receive the gospel, the good news of our Savior Christ. And now that we are new persons in Christ, the First Commandment is also our joy and delight, because we know who the true God is, and we know we can love and trust him above all things.
“You shall have no other gods.” And because we have this God, the one true God, there is no need for any other.