BENT, BROKEN, UNBOWED
The Ten Commandments for Today
THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY NO ABSOLUTES
We live in an age where society believes that there are no absolutes. We don’t like absolutes—unless we are ones who determine what those absolutes are. When God declares an absolute many people baulk simply because someone else set the rules besides us, when someone else restricts what we believe to be our freedoms. It seems odd that we don’t mind restricting someone else’s freedoms when we demand that they accept our “absolutes”.
I wish that the “absolute truth” that there are no absolutes had been true when I was studying math in high school. I would have gotten much better grades if I had been able to prove that my answer to the questions on the math exam were as valid as the answers my teacher expected to see! But two plus two still equals four and not four and a half no matter how much I might hope to prove otherwise.
R. Albert Mohler writes in Words From the Fire, “To live in this day is to live in an antinomian age, an age that is ‘against all law.’ Western society is addicted to minimal law and maximum flexibility...The God whom most persons acknowledge insofar as they acknowledge any God is not in the main a divine legislator. He is not a lawgiver, not someone they fear lest they break His command. The God who spoke is now dismissed by the millions, by the ‘enlightened’ ones, by the intellectual elite, as a sky God of ancient and now overcome superstition. Antinomian to the core, modern society resists the very notion of a binding authority. After all, who can tell us what we must and must not do? Who can tell us how we are to live? Who can tell us whom we are to serve?” (p 29, 30).
But the very fact that The Ten Commandments were given to us by God takes them beyond the possibility of our choosing what we want to accept or reject, what exceptions to the rules touted by humanistic society there are, as that society descends more and more into the chaos where every man is king and whatever he decides is his“truth” and therefore valid. But because God spoke the words, they are as Broadcaster Ted Koppel is quoted as saying, not just “ethical suggestions.”
The disconnect between mankind and The Ten Commandments is based on a misunderstanding of what the rules are meant to be. They are only part of a much bigger picture. J. John illustrates it this way in Ten: Laws of Love Set in Stone: “To say that Christianity is only about keep the Ten Commandments is like saying that driving is all about keeping the traffic regulations…We all know that driving is something else: it is getting into a car, starting the engine, and traveling. The traffic regulations are vital, but they are not at all what driving is about. The Ten Commandments have a similar relationship to the Christian life: They are the guidelines for life; they are not the life itself.” (p 210-11)
But we must go back to a critical beginning point. The validity of the rules depends on what we accept about the One who gave them to us.
Let’s go back to the beginning as Israel becomes a nation under the sovereign rule of God. When God says, “I am the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 5:6), He separates Himself from all the other gods with which the Israelites were familiar. I’m the God, He says, who brought you out of Egypt or who, in other words, rescued you from slavery—the precise picture of how He rescued us from slavery to sin and saved us through Jesus Christ. None of the other gods had done that, just as none of the others had ever spoken a word.
ONE AND ONLY
When God delivered the first of the Ten Commandments to Moses, beginning with “You shall have no other God before me” He first identified Himself, defined Himself. Those of us who memorized the Ten Commandments or refer to them are It is remiss when we leave out the following words with which the Decalogue begins, recorded in Deuteronomy 5:5b, 6: “And he said: ‘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.”
It was only Jehovah who rescued the Israelites from slavery. Obviously He was the only One who could, but this statement, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…” was a constant reminder to the Jews that there was only one God, and that this God had saved them. Paul reminds us that it was this God who rescued us as well. “For he rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13, NIV). When I am confronted with something like: “Lynda, you need to obey me in this,” the struggle to obey is lessened when I remember that I need to obey Him because it was Jesus, and Jesus alone, who forgave me, changed my life, and rescued me from hell by dying in my place. I am grateful and I love Him, therefore I obey Him. This was what God wanted His Old Testament people to be reminded of every time they were faced with an instruction.
Israel is spoken of as the covenant people, or the people of promise. God made a covenant with them, made promises to them, and they confirmed the agreement by making promises in return. As long as Israel kept God’s terms and conditions, God blessed the nation. The giving of The Ten Commandments is couched in those same terms–as an agreement. A legal document begins with the name of the one who is laying out the terms and conditions. In this case that is God. “I am the Lord your God…” and what follows is what you are to be committed to.
MORE THAN A MORAL CODE
There is a danger inherent in looking at The Ten Commandments merely as a moral code. It is that, but it is not primarily that. When Jesus summarized The Ten Commandments with the two that we find recorded in the New Testament: to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, He put the emphasis on relationships rather than on rules. This is critical. If He is indeed “OUR God” then we must follow Him. If we ignore this first command, to have no one or nothing except Him as our number one priority in life, the command to “have no other gods before him,” it is actually possible to talk about all the other commands without even mentioning God. In other words, you can be a moral person, a good person, without believing in God. Sadly, that is the case for many “good” people who are not believers.
That first commandment put all the rest of the commands in perspective. John writes: “Yet as sensible as these Commandments might be, they only really make sense when we see God as being behind each of them. Murder is wrong, primarily because it takes from another person what was given them by God–life itself. Bearing false witness or lying is wrong because God is a God of truth. Adultery is wrong because God is a God of faithfulness. And so on. For us to really understand these Commands, I want to argue that it is vital we understand the God who is behind them…Christianity is about getting and staying in a right relationship with God. And that is why this first commandment is so important. It puts God first.” (p 210).
Understanding the importance of the first commandment removes from us the possibility of saying that what is good for me, or for you, is simply good for me or for you. We are not the center of the universe—God is. We understand that, we can’t walk away from what the One who rules over all quite so easily.
Putting God first is critical. Unless we acknowledge Him as the Lord, our God, we will inevitably put another god in His place. Mohler says: “Those who worship not the one true and living God eventually worship themselves…or we will worship an idol of our own devising or our own adoption” (p 39, 41).
And isn’t that true?
THE CENTER OF IT ALL
The first four commandments given to Moses are specifically related to man’s relationship with God.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out the land of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor an foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day.” (Deuteronomy 5:6-15).
These four are summarized in the first commandment that Jesus cited when asked by the teacher of the law which of the many laws of Judaism was the greatest. Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27, NIV).
And we notice that love is connected with putting God first. Putting God first, or loving Him, is connected to obedience. We also notice, without putting too fine a point on it, how the human responses of heart, soul, strength and mind, relate to the the actions and attitudes required as stated in the first four commands.
J. John writes of the first commandment to put God in His appropriate place as the centre of our universe: “…we have arrived at the very heart of the Commandments…as the sun lies at the center of the solar system and has the planets orbiting around it, so all the other commandments revolve around this first one. God himself lies at the heart of the Commandments and holds them in place” (p 209). In fact, when John wrote his book, he actually explained the commandments in reverse order because he wanted to end with the most important one, the one on which all the others hang and find their meaning.
If we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our strength, and with all our minds, then this is what we have to do: “You shall have no other gods before me.” And, as we shall see, the depth of love given to Him determines the depth of love that we give to others.
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
“before” is from the root word pana, which suggests that the person has turned away from God, or is showing signs of turning away from Him, to follow other gods. The actual word for “before,” panem, suggests that the person is facing God, in the presence of God. Coupled with the root word we understand that the person is looking toward God, and then turns away to look elsewhere or adds the worship of another god to his worship of the Almighty. The idea here is putting another god alongside, or in the presence of the true God.
Most of Israel’s neighbours were pantheists–or worshippers of more than one God. Abraham had come out of Ur of the Chaldeans. The Chaldeans were worshippers of many gods, including Marduk. Moses had been raised in Egypt, a nation that worshipped more than 60 gods. Once the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they were ordered to destroy everything in order to eradicate the presence of the gods of the Canaanites, chief among whom was Baal. Once settled, Israel also had to protect herself from the influences of the pagan nations around her who also worshipped multiple deities. This she did, though with limited success.
God’s people were to be unique among the nations. They not only proclaimed that they were following the only true God, but that their God was one, single being. The beginning lines of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, were dedicated to this truth: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Isaiah 44:6 tells us: “This is what the Lord says–Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God.” After this statement Isaiah follows with a whole exposé on the uselessness of idols.
This idea of one God became a little messy for many of His followers because that single God is represented as three in Scripture. From the beginning of recorded Biblical history that idea is built upon. The very first statement in Scripture: “In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1) lays the foundation for one God existing in three distinct persons. The Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is a singular word that ends with a plural suffix, im.
Genesis 1:26 (NIV): “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” (emphasis mine).
Genesis 11:7 (NIV) also expresses this same idea as God looks down on a people who refused to comply with His instructions. “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (emphasis mine).
One of the many things that aggravated the Pharisees during Jesus’s ministry was His claim to be God. It sounded like blasphemy to them that Jesus would declare Himself part of the Trinity, the Son to Whom God was Father, and yet one with the Father. John 10:30 (NIV) quotes the Lord as saying: “I and the Father are one.” Not simply one in purpose or nature, though both are true, but one and the same.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (NIV): “…we know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”
The third member of the Trinity is also mentioned in various passages, including some in the Old Testament. Isaiah 46 describes Christ speaking and saying: “I am he; I am the first and the last. My own hand laid the foundations of the earth…Come near and listen to this…the Sovereign Lord has sent me, with His Spirit…” (12, 13, 16, NIV).
Our purpose in this study is not to explain the Trinity—as if we could—but we need to acknowledge the dilemma of the Jews as they repeated their statement of faith that there was only One God in front of people who had many gods, knowing that the nature of their God was Father, Son, and Spirit.
One of the issues that arises from this first command is its exclusivity. There is no wiggle room. It’s God, Jehovah, El Shaddai, or nothing. And being the kind of people who don’t want anyone to limit our options, we object. This is the same kind of objection that is leveled at us by non-believers when we say that faith in Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation. Jesus said, “I am the way…no one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6). Peter said that there is no other name under heaven or on earth through which we can be saved (Acts 4:12) and that gets everyone’s dander up! People want to get to heaven their own way, if they believe in heaven at all, and to be told that Jesus is the ONLY way creates issues. But Jesus’s claims are not the only challenge. People have different views of God, and in our “political correctness” to not offend those who hold different views of God, we stumble into some subtle dangers.
For example, I have a friend whose husband is a Muslim. She knows that her husband doesn’t believe in Jesus but hopes that he is at least on the right track with what he believes about God. “It’s the same God, isn’t it?” Such a statement is probably made in reference to the disconnect between what we believe and what others believes as if to say that our differences about the basic truths of Scripture don’t matter as long as we believe in the same God. There go those pesky “absolutes” again!
Is that true? Is my God, this One God, the same as the God represented by, say, Islam? I don’t think so. At best, God is misrepresented; at worst, a parallel god has been created to fit a human perspective. For example, God doesn’t give contradicting instructions about things, for example, how we get to heaven. He does not have multiple personalities depending on who He is talking to. He doesn’t act or speak as One who can’t seem to make up His mind which way things should go or how things should be done. So we need to take a close look to find out if we are following the ONE GOD or if we are somehow are clinging to a “reasonable facsimile.” This will lead us to our next commandment.
Look again at Jesus’s summary statement about these first four commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Luke 12:30, NIV).
The Lord is not saying that He is to be the chief God among some lesser gods. There are no divided loyalties when it comes to our relationship to God. He is not the first among equals or even the first among unequals. He is the ONLY ONE and we are to give Him everything we are and have.
With these words, “You shall have no other gods before me” we acknowledge the position of prominence that God deserves.
Everything else has value because of God. We live in a world where the we often are confronted with demands from parts of our society for recognition, for equality, for justice. And not without valid reasons. But here again, what we believe about God is critical. Every one, no matter race, creed, colour or anything else, has value because he or she was created as the image-bearer of God. A large part of the problem we have today with the way people treat each other has developed because of a humanistic worldview. We have forgotten, or rejected, the absolute that tells us that it is from God that we get our worthwhileness. We have value, we have purpose, only because of Him and when we “lose” Him we lose all sense of that value and purpose that dictates what we think of ourselves and others.
Colossians 1:15-17 tells us: “He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Christ is Creator and Sustainer. The right of a Creator is to be the sovereign and only Lord over what He has created. And Jesus continues to re-create, making what is broken and damaged new again. That He is the only One who can do that is reason enough to put Him in first place in our lives.
He is the only God who reveals Himself—something only He could do because all the other “gods” that the Israelites were familiar with were man-made and unable to respond. He did not distance Himself from us; He became one of us. And now, He actually lives in us through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. No pseudo-god does that!
Most believers would hotly deny that they are worshipping any God other than Jehovah. We have been trained to think of false gods in terms of images, or statues. But a “false god” is anything or anyone that is more important to us than God.
Sometimes we are unaware of the “gods” that we put before the true God.
Who am I trying to impress? What am I living for? What is my objective in life? The answers to these questions need to begin and end with God. To do any less demands that we do a reality check, and allow the Spirit of God to show us what other gods have taken His rightful place in our lives.