No Other Gods
May 31, 1992
We live in strange times, don’t we? A recent Gallup Poll revealed that 84% of Americans believe that the Ten Commandments are a valid guide to life. That’s encouraging until you realize that another survey revealed that only 30% of those polled could name even 3 of the Commandments.
So before we go any further, how many can you name? Fill in the blanks below with a word or phrase that summarizes each Commandment:
For many generations the Ten Commandments were considered a standard part of a good American education. Children learned to recite all ten—usually long before they started school. If for some reason they didn’t, poems such as the following were used to help them remember:
Thou no gods shalt have but Me
Before no idol bend the knee
Take not the name of God in vain
Dare not the Sabbath to profane
Give both thy parents honor due
Take heed that thou no murder do
Abstain from all that is unclean
Steal not though thou be poor or mean
Make not a willful lie nor love it
What is thy neighbor’s do not covet
(Quoted in Leslie Flynn, Now a Word From Our Creator, p. 9)
The sad reality is that most American children will grow up and know next to nothing about the Ten Command-ments. Several years ago the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Kentucky law requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in public school classrooms. Such a law was a violation of the First Amendment because it unnecessarily entangled church and state. The fairest comment upon that decision is that the men who wrote the constitution would be utterly amazed by that conclusion. They assumed that all children in every classroom would learn the Ten Commandments because they regarded their work as resting on that legal and historical foundation that went all the way back to Mt. Sinai. To use the constitution against the Ten Com-mandments would have seemed ludicrous to them. Unfortunately, we live in a day when the ludicrous has become the law of the land.
I. Why Bother With the Ten Commandments?
It is against that general background that we begin our study of the Ten Commandments—recognized by Jews and Christians alike as the greatest moral code ever given to mankind. As the first step, one basic question engages the mind. “Why bother with the Ten Commandments?”
Even Christians ask that. “We’re not under the law, are we?” “Don’t give me that Old Testament legalism.” “Ugh! I remember having to memorize the Ten Commandments when I was a child.”
For those who don’t know about the Ten Commandments, or for those who know and don’t think they matter much, let me offer three answers to the question, “Why bother?”
A. They Provide an Objective Standard of Right and Wrong.
If we had no other reason for studying the Ten Commandments, this would be sufficient. We live in a day when the very concept of objective morality is being questioned. “It may be right for you, but how do I know if it’s right for me?” Once the concept of an absolute standard is jettisoned, then we are left with nothing more than dreamy idealism (“We are the world”) or hard-fisted pragmatism (“Might makes right”) or democratic populism (“The majority rules”) or technocratic elitism (“I went to college. Let me make the rules.”).
Someone has said that since the beginning of time man has passed 35 million laws. How do we know which ones are valid and which ones are not? To answer that question you need an objective standard by which to measure right and wrong. Where will we go to find such a standard?
There are only three answers to that question.
1. Human Feeling. (e.g. Debbie Boone’s “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?”)
2. Majority Vote. (e.g. “How can it be wrong if 55% of the people vote for it?”)
The problem with the first two answers is that feelings change and the majority often shifts its position. We are thus left with the shifting and uncertain sands of moral relativism. And what will we do if your feelings conflict with my convictions? Who’s right then? If we say that what is “right” for you may not be “right” for me, haven’t we evacuated the word of any real meaning? In the same sense abortion is “wrong” until the Supreme Court says it is “right,” at which point those who oppose abortion as morally “wrong” themselves become “wrong” for opposing something a Court has now declared “right.” Right and wrong become nothing more than emotional phrases lacking any objective meaning.
All of which points us to the third and final answer to the question, “Where will we find a standard by which we can reliably measure right and wrong?”
3. We need an absolute standard—one that is unchanging and unchangeable. That absolute standard must be—and can only be—God.
Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the world.” The lever long enough is not the problem; we need a “place to stand.” If you want to move the world, you have to stand outside the world. That’s the problem with using human feelings and majority rule as a basis for determining right and wrong. They will never provide a secure “place to stand.” You need something—or someone—who himself stands outside the world. That Someone can only be God himself.
Ted Koppel on the Ten Commandments
Several years ago Ted Koppel (of ABC’s Nightline) delivered the commencement address at Duke University. Listen to how he describes the moral influence of television on American culture:
Look at MTV or Good Morning America and watch the images and ideas flash past in a blur of impressionistic appetizers. No, there is not much room on television for complexity. You can partake of our daily banquet without drawing on any intellectual resources, without either physical or moral discipline. We require nothing of you, only that you watch, or say that you were watching if Mr. Nielsen’s representative should happen to call. And gradually, it must be said, we are beginning to make our mark on the American people. We have actually con-vinced ourselves that slogans will save us. “Shoot up if you must, but use a clean needle.” “Enjoy sex whenever and with whomever you wish, but wear a condom.”
We can certainly agree with all of that, but Ted Koppel doesn’t stop there. Listen to his next few sentences:
No. The answer is no. Not because it isn’t cool or smart or because you might end up in jail or dying in an AIDS ward, but no, because it’s wrong. Because we have spent 5,000 years as a race of rational human beings trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In the place of truth we have discovered facts; for moral abso-lutes, we have substituted moral ambiguity. We now communicate with everyone and say absolutely nothing.
But even that is not the end of his analysis. What is the answer? Where can we go to find truth that will stand the test of time?
Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder; it is a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions; they are Commandments. Are, not were. The sheer beauty of the Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time. (Duke University Alumni Magazine, p. 36, n.d.)
It’s hard to believe a major American figure would dare to speak like that. But Ted Koppel is right. “In the place of truth we have discovered fact; for moral absolutes, we have substituted moral ambiguity.” The answer? The Ten Commandments, which are (not were!) eternally valid.
God Spoke All These Words
And that brings us to Exodus 20:1, the often-overlooked preamble to the Ten Commandments, “And God spoke all these words.” In our attempt to get down to the “good stuff” we rush right over these words as if they were a kind of ancient copyright notice. We flip past the title page to get to the first chapter. But that’s a crucial mistake because these words tell who is speaking.
“God spoke all these words.”
Who is speaking here? God!
What did he say? “All these words.”
So where do the Ten Commandments come from? God!
These are not “Ten Suggestions for a Better Life” or “Ten Ways You Should Consider” or “Ten Habits of Highly Successful People” or “Ten Ways to Climb the Ladder” or “Ten Ideas That Might Work For You.” No!
God spoke all these words—therefore they have lasting moral authority.
God spoke all these words—therefore we don’t have to wonder about his intentions.
God spoke all these words—therefore we must take all of them with utter seriousness.
God spoke all these words—therefore we must give these words our primary attention.
What, then, do we find when we come to the Ten Commandments? Here at last is an objective standard for right and wrong. Here at last is our “place to stand” upon which we can make proper moral judgments. Here at last is a universal set of moral principles.
—They have never been repealed.
—They have never been surpassed.
—They are as valid today as they were 3,000 years ago.
(There is a second reason why we ought to pay attention to the Ten Commandments.)
B. They Regulate Christian Behavior.
At this point we enter a theological minefield. In what sense do the Ten Commandments regulate Christian behavior? “Pastor, I thought we weren’t under the law nowadays.” You are right. We’re not “under” the law but “under” grace. But note the next sentence carefully: Being “under” grace does not cancel the Ten Command-ments.
Let me state the matter as clearly as I can. We are not saved by keeping the Ten Commandments. I think Paul settles that matter conclusively in the book of Romans. No one will get to heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments because no one can keep them perfectly!
But that’s only half the story. Although we are not saved by the Ten Commandments, we are kept safe by them.
Let me illustrate. Suppose that up in the mountains of Colorado a terrible storm sweeps away a narrow bridge over a steep gorge. A traveler happening along in the middle of the night sees what has happened and constructs a makeshift sign: “Bridge out! Danger!” An hour later a man comes along who has had too much to drink. Thinking the handmade sign is a joke he drives on around the curve only to discover too late that the bridge really is out, plunging to his death on the rocks below. Why did he die? He died because he ignored the warning sign.
The Ten Commandments are like that warning sign. They are God’s way of saying, “Warning! Danger Ahead! Bridge Out!” We ignore them at our own peril.
One little boy came home from Sunday School bubbling over with excitement. “What did you learn today?” his mother asked. “Mom, it was great. We learned all about the Ten Commandos!” He’s right! The Ten Commandments are really God’s Ten Commandos who keep us safe and point the way to happiness.
And that brings me to the third reason we ought to study the Ten Commandments.
C. They Point Out God’s Road Map to Happiness.
It may seem odd to connect the Ten Commandments with happiness since 8 of the 10 commandments are stated in a negative fashion. “Thou shalt not … Thou shalt not … Thou shalt not … Thou shalt not …” Some people read that and think that maybe God doesn’t have a sense of humor, that he’s a crotchety old man sitting in a rocking chair in heaven just looking for a chance to throw a lightning bolt down and fry a sinner.
Somewhere I read the story of a newspaper editor who told one of his reporters to rewrite the Ten Command-ments. After a few minutes the reporter came back with one word scratched in huge letters on a piece of paper: DON’T! And that’s their image of God—”No, no, no, don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t have any fun, don’t enjoy life, if you enjoy it, it’s probably wrong.” People think that a God of love would never say no!
Love Means Saying No!
Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you love someone, you’ll love them enough to say no! A few days ago a young man came in to see our youth pastor, Bob Boerman. He told Bob that one of the reasons he doesn’t want to become a Christian is that Christianity is such a negative religion. He also said that he found it incred-ible to ask teenagers to abstain from sex until they were married. How could God ask anybody to do a thing like that? Bob replied that if he saw one of his three daughters playing in the middle of Lake Street, he wouldn’t stand back and say, “Well, kids will be kids. If they want to play in the street, there’s nothing I can do about it.” What kind of parent would do that? No, he would shout to his girls, “Don’t play in the street.” If they complained, he would pick them up and carry them out of the street. Is that unloving? Is that unkind? As Bob said, “If I love my daughters, I’ll say no!”
Sometimes you have to love people enough to say no!
That’s what God is doing in the Ten Commandments. He’s loving us enough to say no. We may not under-stand it, we may not see it right now, we may think that our way is better, but God who sees all things and knows how life is supposed to work, gives us these commandments as a way of being happy both now and forever.
There’s another way of looking at this. Suppose we turned the commandments into beatitudes. They would look something like this:
Blessed are they who put God first.
Blessed are they who need no substitutes.
Blessed are they who honor God’s name.
Blessed are they who honor God’s day.
Blessed are they who honor their parents.
Blessed are they who value life.
Blessed are they who keep their marriage vows.
Blessed are they who respect the property of others.
Blessed are they who love the truth.
Blessed are they who learn the art of contentment.
Who said the Ten Commandments are too negative? They aren’t negative at all. Turn them over and you find the ten most positive statements about life ever written.
Some people call the Ten Commandments narrow. Narrow! Well, in one sense they are narrow in that they forever rule out such things as murder, adultery, hatred, stealing and lying. If that’s being narrow, then we need all the narrowness we can get.
Are the Ten Commandments narrow? Yes, but so is every runway in the world. No passenger wants the pilot to miss the runway and land in a field. How would you feel if the captain announced over the intercom that he was bored with landing at O’Hare Airport so he had decided to land on the Eisenhower Freeway? Listen, when you are up in the air you want a narrow-minded pilot. You don’t want some creative fly-jock who’s going to land on the freeway. You want a narrow-minded guy who’s going to land on that same strip of concrete every single time. Boring? Maybe, but that narrow ribbon of pavement is really the broad road that leads to a safe landing.
The Ten Commandments may seem narrow to you, but they point the way to a happy, fulfilled life. Someone has said, “You do what is wrong, but you can’t make it work.” That’s a profound truth. The Ten Commandments are given by God to show us “what works.”
II. What Does the First Commandment Demand of Us?
With that background we turn to consider the First Commandment—”You shall have no other Gods before me.” Note that the Commandments begin with God—not with man. We start with the vertical—not the horizontal—because until a man has a right relationship with God, his relationships with other men will never be right. Even the order of the Commandments teaches us that God must come first.
We may sum up the teaching of this Commandment in three simple statements:
1. You must have a God.
2. You must have only one God.
3. Your God must be the God of the Bible.
God must be first. That’s where the Ten Commandments begin. Joy Davidman puts it this way: “Whatever we desire, whatever we love, whatever we find worth suffering for, will be Dead Sea fruit in our mouths unless we remember that God comes first.”
But what does this mean in a practical sense? What is demanded of us?
A man purchased a statue of Christ at an auction and put it in the living room. The next day his wife decided the statue belonged in a different room. When their five-year-old daughter saw her mother moving the statue, she blurted out, “Where are you going to put God?”
Great question. Where are you going to put God? That’s what the First Commandment is asking you: “Where are you going to put God? Will he have the first place in your life? Or will you stick him in some out-of-the-way place where he won’t cause any trouble?”
God must be first! That’s the message that rings out from Mount Sinai. He won’t play second fiddle. He won’t take second place. He must be first in your life. And that means loyalty to him.
In one of his books Chuck Colson tells of speaking to a group of Hindus in India. As he shared his testimony about Jesus Christ, he found them extraordinarily attentive. They smile and nodded and agreed with everything he said. Afterwards he commented to his hosts on how receptive his audience had been to the Christian gospel. “Oh no,” they explained, “You don’t understand. To the Hindus Jesus is just one among many gods. To them, your “accepting” Christ is like them accepting another god into their list of gods. Jesus is just one of many gods to the Hindus.”
A few days later Chuck Colson spoke to another audience of Hindus and had a similar experience. But this time a Hindu scholar came up afterward and said, “I believe exactly what you believe.” Chuck decided to put him to the test. “I don’t think you really believe what I believe. When I say Jesus Christ is the Son of God, I mean he is God come in human flesh. He is not just one among many or even the best of many, but he is the one true God who appeared on earth in human flesh. You must give your complete and supreme allegiance to this Jesus Christ who came from heaven—to him and to no one else.” The Hindu thought for a moment and said, “You’re right. I don’t believe what you believe. Now I must go home and think about the things you have said.”
That’s the issue, isn’t it? Jesus Christ must have the first place in your life. He will not share his glory with anyone or with anything. He must be first—not simply the first among many or the best of the rest—but he must be pre-eminent in all things.
The First Commandment calls us to personal honesty concerning our ultimate allegiance. Here’s a simple test. Take five minutes this week to get alone in a quiet place and answer these questions: Who or what is my god? What am I dedicating my life to? Where have I placed my ultimate allegiance? What things in life are most
important to me?
If we are honest, some of us will not find it easy to deal with those questions because they probe at a difficult and deep level. You say, “Jesus Christ is my God.” Is he really? Does he have your full allegiance? Is it possible that while claiming to worship Jesus Christ, you are in truth worshiping an entirely different set of gods?
—Your business could be your god.
—Your career could be your god.
—Your education could be your god.
—Your social set could be your god.
—Your family—yes, even your children—could be your god.
Think about the way you spend your money, the way you spend your leisure time, the things you daydream about when life gets dull.
What’s a god? It’s anything that provides your ultimate source of meaning and happiness in life. How easy it is for everyday concerns to be elevated to godlike status … even by religious people who go to church every Sunday!
Everyone has a god! Even the atheist has made a “god” out of his belief in no god. Everyone looks to someone or something for meaning and happiness and fulfillment in life. The First Commandment is God’s way of saying, “Make sure you look at me first. Give me first place in your life.”
Repentance! What does repentance have to do with the First Commandment? Everything!
—”No other gods”
—”No cheap imitations”
No silence! Yes, this commandment demands not only inner loyalty, but outward allegiance. No dipping the color, no hiding our identity. We belong to God, he must be first, and we must let the world know.
What is there to repent of?
—Our moral cowardice
—Our complicity with evil
—Our tendency to substitute human gods for the true God
—Our failure to speak out when God’s name is blasphemed
—Our silence in the time of crisis.
They kill babies in America. Where is the church of Jesus Christ? If he were here, would he be silent? Would he look the other way? How can his people remain silent while the unborn are slaughtered?
“Repent,” says the Lord. “Change your evil ways. You are my people, yet you have turned away from me. I must have first place in your life.”
It wasn’t easy for Moses to bring these words to Israel. The people lived in a world filled with false gods:
Ancient names to us; daily realities for the Israelites. They lived in a world that offered them a god of fertility, a god of the harvest, a god of the sun and a god of the moon. To them, this call to pure monotheism was a call to reject the world they saw around them every day.
Courage! That’s what it takes to say no to the false gods.
We take these words so lightly. But God is deadly serious when he says “No other gods.” He means it!
Biblical religion is all of those things. Thus it is that true religion always runs against the spirit of the age.
Here in Oak Park we have made a trinity of false gods:
But these are false gods! And we have bowed down before them!
Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Elton Trueblood looked back to those few brave German Christians who had the courage to oppose Adolph Hitler. When so many others went along or simply kept silent, a few, a courageous handful, would not go along with the majority. Trueblood asked the question, “What made these people different? Why did they say no when everyone else said yes?” His answer was simple: “They had the First Commandment.” That made all the difference. When you have the First Commandment, when you take it seriously as a way of life, you find the courage to stand against the crowd.
Let’s wrap up this first message with four simple points of application.
First Steps to New Life
1. We desperately need the Ten Commandments because we have drifted far from God’s design for life.
2. Because the drift has been personal, the return must be personal.
3. The return begins with a personal commitment to put God first in everything.
4. When we contemplate our lives in light of the First Commandment, we are driven to the cross of Jesus Christ.
Romans 10:4 says that “Christ is the end of the law for all who believe.” There are many ways to understand that verse, but it means at least this much: When we read the Ten Commandments and when we begin to examine our lives in light of God’s high demands, we are driven to the cross of Christ.
Life begins when you come to Jesus Christ. Until then you are merely existing. The First Commandment says, “Put God first and you will find life.”
St. Augustine put it well when he said, “Our hearts are made for Thee, O God, and we will not find rest, until we come to rest in Thee.” The First Commandment says, “Put God first and you will find rest.”
The first step to life is to take the First Commandment seriously. And the first step in the First Commandment is to consider your life in light of the cross of Christ. Embrace the cross. Put Christ at the center of your life. Confess him as Lord and Savior. There are nine other commandments but they will do you no good unless you remember that Jesus Christ comes first.