The First and Most Broken Commandment

John Newton — of “Amazing Grace” fame — once shrewdly wrote to a correspondent that a misunderstanding of the law of God lies at the root of most mistakes in the Christian life. Many of the spiritual masters have agreed with him. That explains why as much as 30–40 percent of the Reformed catechisms are devoted to an exposition of the Ten Commandments.

What did they understand that we fail to grasp? Much. And hearing the law through their ears will help us greatly as we consider the first commandment of the Ten: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Sinai’s Background

We can sketch a Reformed understanding of the law under six headings:

  1. The law is rooted in the covenant-making and covenant-keeping character of Yahweh. It is prefaced by the words “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2). It is a summons to reflect his moral glory.
  2. The law was given in the context of God’s redeeming grace: “. . . who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2) — the event that typified the “exodus” that Jesus would accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31).
  3. The negative form in which most of the commandments come is designed for the safety of immature sinners — in the same way we tell our very young children, “Don’t do that” long before we explain our instructions in detail.
  4. The commands that forbid any action imply the responsibility to express their opposite. Jesus made this clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17–48), but it was already present in the old covenant: for example, Exodus 20:3 is expressed in positive form in Deuteronomy 6:5.
  5. The more we appreciate how wonderful the grace of God is, the more we will embrace the all-demanding nature of his law. The stronger the indicative, the more demanding the imperative it can bear! Consider, then, a biblical health warning: strong indicatives with weak imperatives produce spiritual weakness.
  6. The wisdom of the commandments lies in the fact that they express (yes, briefly and in negative form since we are sinners) what we were created to be — men and women made as the image of God to reflect his glory. In that sense, the so-called “third use of the law,” by which we use the law to guide our lives, was originally its first use.

Against this background, Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is not only the first but the greatest commandment. All the others follow from it. Without conformity to this commandment, obedience to the other nine is impossible.

But didn’t Jesus say that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30)? Indeed, but as Deuteronomy chapters 5 and 6 suggest, those words are simply the positive exposition of Exodus 20:3, and an illustration of point 4 above.

Our Dearest Idols

It should not surprise us, then, to discover — about others, or about ourselves — that as the first and greatest commandment, it is also the first to be broken. That was true in Eden, where Adam and Eve gave priority to the snake’s false interpretation of reality and made him “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). It was also true at Sinai, where the liturgy of the golden calf was introduced. The closing words of John’s first letter (“Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” 1 John 5:21) suggest that there is as real a danger for Christians at the foot of Mount Calvary as there was for the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai.

“A misunderstanding of the law of God lies at the root of most mistakes in the Christian life.”

Our idols do not need to be forged from earrings to constitute a spiritual danger to us. They appear whenever we exchange “the glory of the immortal God” for anything in the created order (Romans 1:23). That is why Ezekiel’s unique turn of phrase is as apt a description of the earlier Israelites, and alas of ourselves, as it was of his contemporaries. He spoke of those who set up idols “into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3–7). Was it this that prompted Calvin’s pointed comment that “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols” (Institutes, 1.11.8)?

It is clear enough in our Lord’s teaching that it is not only crass things that can usurp our first devotion. The higher the position something occupies on the scale of divine blessing, the more subtle the temptation to worship it. And so, Jesus warns us pointedly, if any man “does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). These relations are God’s greatest natural blessings. And we should not fail to notice the sixfold and. It is not a matter of three out of six being the pass mark. All must be “hated” (Jesus’s word, not mine) if we are to be his. Is there, perhaps, an echo here of the sobering words describing the judgment on idolatry in Deuteronomy 13:6–9? Newton’s friend William Cowper was right, then, to pray,

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

He knew it was the only way to the “closer walk with God” he so desired. He also understood better than we moderns tend to that this rigorous, almost violent approach is in fact the grace-way of the new covenant: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation . . . training us to renounce ungodliness” (Titus 2:11–12). Grace, in this sense, is a killer.

‘Before My Face’

We like to be able to “tick the boxes.” But any checklist of the ways in which we can have other gods today is bound to fail. Nevertheless, built into the language in which this first commandment is expressed is a kind of litmus test that helps us to detect the presence of the other-gods-before-God disease (at least, so it seems to me). The litmus paper can be seen to an extent in our English translations. Clearly the words “you shall have no other gods before me” do not imply that they can be tolerated so long as they have a lower priority. But the Hebrew expression is more forceful. It means, literally, “before my face” — “You shall have no other gods before my face!”

Perhaps significantly, this is the same expression that is used of Adam and Eve when they had worshiped lesser gods: they “hid themselves from the presence [from the face] of the Lord” (Genesis 3:8). Having obscured his face by bringing other gods closer to their spiritual vision, they could no longer bear the thought of seeing that face. This is the poison of having other gods: they not only take priority over our heavenly Father, but they also create an inner antipathy to him that soon becomes a deep-seated hostility.

And anything can be deified. The smallest coin brought near enough to the eye can obscure the entire universe from sight. Anything that tends to obscure our clear vision of God must come under a ban.

“Anything that tends to obscure our clear vision of God must come under a ban.”

Yet, paradoxically, we must resist the instinct to make our assessments by sight. God’s people learn that the only safe sense is hearing, that is, listening to the voice of God in his word, not interpreting reality through the vision of our eyes. Had Eve (Genesis 3:6), and Aaron (Exodus 32:4–6), and Achan (Joshua 7:20–21), and David (2 Samuel 11:2) looked through their ears, matters might have been very different.

Word of Hope and Joy

The first commandment is intended to be a major help to us. The Christian life is a perpetual roller-coaster of discovering our sin and the remnants of our devotion to lesser gods, leading to a fresh seeking of Christ’s pardon and power, and then on to a rediscovering that our idolatries run deeper into our being than we formerly suspected, so that we seek Christ’s grace more — and on and on. We need perseverance in the pursuit of godliness. So, lest we be discouraged, it is important to notice the word of hope and joy that is embedded in Exodus 20:3.

We refer — rightly so — to the Ten Commandments. But the Bible calls them, literally, the Ten Words. True, they enshrine commandments, as we have seen. But they also contain a word of promise and grace, even a word of prophecy. Written into the imperative we hear a glorious indicative: you shall have no other gods before him! In Christ, and through the Spirit, this has already become true (Romans 8:3–4). Before his face, we can already say when he asks us, “Do you love me more than these?” “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:15–17).

And there is more. For one day, we will see him face to face and be like him. “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3).

Mentioned by Name

James Fisher (1697–1775), in his once-popular eponymous catechism, asks the question, “Why do this, and other commands, run in the second-person singular, thou and not in the plural, you or ye?” His answer? “To signify that God would have us take his commandments as spoken to each of us in particular as if we were mentioned by name.”

“You shall have no other gods before me” — it would not be such a bad idea to print out these words on a small card, insert your own name, and refer to it frequently, would it?

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.