“I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
So begin the “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments”. After our God presented himself as Yahweh, the God who brought the Israelite slaves into freedom, he put their claim on them. “I will be your God, and no one else.” This is the first of the ten basic commandments. The people whom the Lord set free are instructed, invited, urgently called to commit themselves to serving and worshiping him as their God. In their newly found freedom, their first priority should be this: to love the Lord their God as the only, true God.
This was to be the first priority for the Israelites who had left Egypt and stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, over 3000 years ago. It is also the first priority for us, who have been set free from the slavery of sin and live in the light of Jesus Christ and his Spirit. We, too, have —
Freedom to love the one, true God.
1. The first and great commandment
2. The full revelation in Jesus Christ
3. The flight from idolatry
The first and great commandment
Have you ever noticed that the Ten Commandments are mostly negative statements? “You shall not …” It is said eleven times. Why the negativity? You could think of the Ten Commandments as an outer perimeter, an outside boundary of how believers should leave. Here are ten lines you definitely shouldn’t cross. Take for instance “You shall not kill.” If you murder someone, you are definitely out of bounds. That doesn’t mean that all non-murderous behavior is automatically good; it means that murder is clearly bad, and you should stay far from it. After speaking the Ten Commandments, the Law of Moses also addresses the positive. For instance, the Law of Moses teaches later on that we must “love our neighbour as ourselves”, which is about as far away from murder as you can get.
In the same way, the first commandment draws a sharp outside boundary. There are many positive things to say about the kind of relationship the Lord wants us to have with him. But at the very least, do not have other gods apart from me. (“Apart from me” is a bit clearer than “before me”. The Lord doesn’t want any other gods behind or beside him, either.)
Sadly, even that blunt, negative statement, “you shall have no other gods apart from me,” turned out to be very necessary for the ancient people of God. Throughout the Old Testament we read about them worshipping Baal and Asheroth and Chemosh and Molech, and who knows what other deities. We may find it hard to imagine that Christians would openly also worship other gods, such as Shiva or Dionysus or Osiris or Wodan. Perhaps we don’t need that negative boundary not as much.
But “not having other gods” is setting the bar very low. It’s like a man promising his bride at the wedding “I will not cheat on you:” well, good for you, but she also wants to know that you will love her, care for her, provide for her. It is not enough just not to have other gods apart from our true Saviour. It is not right to be cold or lukewarm about him. The Lord not only wants us to stay away from the edge of idolatry. The positive point of the First Commandments is that he wants us to stay close to him, by loving him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This positive statement is not in the Ten Commandments, but it is in a perhaps even more central text in Scripture, in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the famous “shema” that even today Jews still consider to be their primary confession of faith.
Sometimes people say that the Old Testament law was all about outward ritual, but that is obviously not true. Even then, the primary thing the Lord wanted from people was their love. In his dealings with people, both long ago in the times of Abraham and Moses and today, God’s goal has always been to establish and enjoy a relationship of mutual love.
For the Israelites back then, it should have been a no-brainer. Had it not been for the wonderful saving activity of the LORD, they would have died a genocidal death in Egypt; they wouldn’t even exist. They existed only because of God’s deep love for them; how unreasonable, then, not to love him back! The same is true for us: had it not been for the mercy of the LORD, we would still be living in our sins without purpose, hope, or future. We are who we are only because of the grace and love of God. How unreasonable it would be not to love him back!
The first and great commandment is a commandment of love. But it would be absurd to view this commandment as a burden. Why wouldn’t we love the God who saved us, who is nothing but good to us, and who makes us citizens of heaven and dear children of the highest realm? That is why I speak of the freedom to love the Lord. It is not so much that we must love the Lord; it is that we get to love him, who so loved us first!
The full revelation in Jesus Christ
Love the LORD your God: this was already the positive implication of the very first lines of the Ten Commandments. This was already the first and great commandment in the Old Testament. What the catechism says in q&a 94 was already taught by Moses and David and other Old Testament saints: I should rightly know the only true God, trust in him alone, submit to him with all humility and patience, expect all good from him only, and love, fear, and honour him with all my heart.
And you may wonder: has anything really changed, then, when Jesus Christ came on earth? Is there a way to understand the First Commandment in an explicitly Christian way?
I believe the answer is yes, and that it is important for us to approach this commandment, as well as all the others, with a clear focus on our Lord Jesus Christ. The catechism is a bit disappointing here; what it says is not wrong, but it doesn’t mention Christ in its discussion of the Ten Commandments, except at the very end, in q&a 115. In many other places the Heidelberg Catechism is beautifully Christ-centered: in the very first question and answer, “My only comfort is that I belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ”; at the beginning of the discussion of good works; even in the discussion of “God the Father” (LD 9), it is all about Jesus. But in LD 34-44, no such Christ-centered approach is found.
I don’t know why not; the authors of the catechism did write from a deeply Christian point of view. One of them, Ursinus, writes in his commentary on the catechism that the first commandment requires knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, faith in God the Son, hope in the eternal life given freely for the sake of Christ, and enough love of God to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. It would have been nice if these elements had made their way into the catechism, to remind us that the First Commandment points us directly to our Lord Jesus Christ.
In his little book The Ten Commandments (a book I recommend to you!) Kevin DeYoung agrees: “This first commandment (like the others) is transformed by the coming of Christ. By ‘transformed’ I don’t mean that God says, ‘These commandments don’t apply to you anymore.’ But the way they apply—and the way we obey them—does change.” DeYoung makes a comparison with a piece of music which is “transposed”: the music is essentially the same, but it is played in a different key.
How is the First Commandment transformed in the New Testament? All that God is now see more clearly in Jesus Christ. All our love and worship for God goes through Jesus Christ, and in his name. Note that there is no contradiction between “loving the LORD” and “loving Jesus” with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; because we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our God. The difference is the more definite revelation of the New Testament, which tells us of the Son of God who became one of us, who dwelt among us, who died for us yet lives again. We no longer simply worship the LORD, Yahweh, but we worship the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. Ever since Christ’s coming, we cannot worship God properly without faith specifically in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no one comes to the Father except through me.” The book of Hebrews declares that, while God revealed himself in many ways, his greatest and final word was spoken in the Son, who therefore must be worshiped and glorified. It is in the name of Jesus, writes Paul, that every knee must bow. And in the vision of Revelation, all citizens of heaven are singing praises, not just to God in general, but to the Lamb, that is, the Lord Jesus who died and rose again.
So the short, New-Testament answer to the question “What does the First Commandment tell you to do?” is: “To uniquely love and worship Jesus Christ as my God.” In this light, q&a 94 teaches more specifically that, as a Christian, I am called to rightly know Jesus Christ as my only Savior, put all by faith and trust in him, follow him with humility and patience, expect all good from him alone, and love, fear, and honor him with all my heart.
Here lies the true freedom of every Christian: you are now free to get to know Jesus, through his Holy Spirit. You are now free to stop worrying about food and drink and clothing, because his Kingdom is greater than all these things. You are now free to live a meaningful life by following in his footsteps. You are free to love the one who sacrificed himself out of deep love for you. As a Christian, you have been given the life of Jesus’ resurrection, in the light of his Word and the power of his Spirit. In that new life, Jesus Christ has the central place, without any competition. As Paul writes in Col. 2: “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him. … Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. … Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
The flight from idolatry
Sadly, we can be rather weak in our understanding and use of this freedom. We are not always committed to our Lord as we should be. And when we stray from loving Jesus first and foremost, when we hesitate and do not live in step with the Holy Spirit, we can be pulled into patterns of sin.
That is why we also need to consider the negative of the first commandment: be careful not to have other gods apart from our Lord Jesus Christ. Stay away from the serious danger of idolatry. “Flee idolatry,” Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 10:14, and the catechism echoes: For the sake of my very salvation I should avoid and flee all idolatry, witchcraft, superstition, and prayer to saints and other creatures.
Idolatry, in the narrow sense, is the religious worship of false deities. You don’t see much of that in our western culture. Our society and culture have been shaped by Christian values, and even though many have left the faith, these values are still in place. The western world left outright idolatry behind centuries ago; even today, people who think Christianity is nonsensical also think that it is nonsense to serve other deities. In that sense, we don’t see as much idolatry around as, say, Paul did when he walked through Athens.
But that doesn’t mean the warning against idolatry is irrelevant for us. First of all, there has been a revival of non-Christian religious cults in recent decades. There are worshippers of Satan, there are demonic sects. I know people that used to be part of this, and they can tell of the evil power and the darkness that takes hold of these idolaters.
Second, there are many practices related to idolatry that have some foothold in our culture. Witchcraft, for instance. I am not talking about the relatively harmless fictional witchcraft in stories, like the Harry Potter books. There are people who really immerse themselves in witchcraft, who worship and summon spirits of nature or even dark demons. Even the small city of Chatham has a Wiccan society dedicated to this. This is also idolatry, because it directs worship to other spiritual entities. Then there is the idolatry of fortune-telling, of horoscopes, and so on. In our post-Christian world, more and more people engage in such activity.
Some would argue that this is quite harmless; after all, isn’t it all made-up nonsense? But it is foolish to downplay the dangers of witchcraft and the like. Even made-up things can be used by evil spirits to lure people into slavery. And Satan and his demons are very real. They are not more powerful than God, but they can easily ruin the lives of people; engaging in these things is playing with fire. But even if it were all pure fiction, participating in idolatrous practices is still sinful and offensive to the Lord. He does not want to share our devotion and love with anyone or anything else. Paul makes this point in 1 Cor. 10: “I don’t want you to be participants with demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?”
But in the third place, the warning against idolatry becomes much more relevant if we broaden our perspective on what idolatry is. In the broad sense, the catechism defines idolatry as having or inventing something in which to put our trust instead of, or in addition to, the only true God who has revealed himself in his Word. And that is something that comes all too easily to all of us. We rely on our bank account, on our health, on our intelligence, on medical doctors, and so on, and quickly forget that none of these things can really make us happy, none of these things can ultimately save us, none of these things is guaranteed to always last and work for us.
The apostle Paul learned this lesson well, when he found out that he had even made keeping the law of God into an idol. It is not a bad thing at all, it is even a holy thing, yet when it distracts from the Lord himself, it is still idolatry. Paul therefore decided to get rid of all reliances in his life, until there was only one thing left to be proud of, only one thing to boast about: that he belonged to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.
That is the example we should follow, as well. To check ourselves regularly: what exactly are we relying on? What drives our actions? What makes us value life? Where do we find comfort? If it is anything else than our Lord Jesus Christ, we have become distracted, and we risk becoming enslaved by something that cannot save. So the first commandment becomes a warning and a reminder: Don’t throw away your freedom, which you find only in Jesus Christ. Let his Word and Spirit guide everything you do. Love him more than anything. Then you will find blessing upon blessing.