January 22, 2022 - 1st Commandment

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Today we begin a series on the 10 Commandments. In Exodus 20, a little over 2 months since they left Egypt (sometime in June), the people of Israel are camped at about 5000 feet at the base of Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is wrapped in thick smoke, and the voice of God thunders across the Sinai Peninsula. In these electrifying moments, God cuts straight to the heart and speaks to the deepest issues that our souls struggle with every day.

God begins with a self-introduction and his first command: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me,” or literally “before my face.” What that means is: You shall have no other gods, period, either before God’s face, or behind God’s back, or anywhere, not even second on the list. God commands that they accept the fact that no other God exists.

Whoever or whatever we place at the top of our pyramid of values will be the one we serve. Who or what we serve profoundly affects the way we live, across the board, for good or for ill. Stephen Covey writes: Whatever is at the center of your life will be your source of security, guidance, wisdom, and power. Whatever we’ve placed at the center of our lives, whatever we’re obsessed with, whatever we’re relying on for security, guidance, wisdom, or power will fail us, unless it’s the one true God. That’s why God puts at the top of his list of laws that liberate the human soul: “You shall have no other gods before my face.”

God’s first command from Mount Sinai is a radical new proposition for the people of Moses’ day. Back then, everyone thought in terms of more than one god. Nobody claimed that their god was the one and only. It is only here at Mount Sinai that God makes it crystal clear for the first time: “I am the One and only! All others out there are false!”

Sounds pretty narrow-minded! You ask: Who is God to make such a claim, some kind of egotist? Why does God forbid the worship of all other powers or objects of worship? Is God insecure or a narcissist? Is God trying to muscle out the competition? No, God honestly has our best interests at heart here. God knows that no other god can deliver what we need.

Bowing down before any god other than the living God of the Bible is like hugging a mannequin. It cannot respond. It cannot produce results. When a crisis hits, unless you cry out to the real God, you’re going to be talking to a stone wall. God knows that our lives will be off course and headed for disaster, unless we make the Lord the central focus of our lives. God is the One whose laws liberate us from slavery.

God reminds the children of Israel, “Don’t forget! I’ve got an unbeaten track record. I’m the One who rescued you out of slavery in Egypt. Did Baal do that for you? Did Molech do that for you? Is there anyone who has the power to do what I have done for you? If not, then why would you want to waste your time worshipping any other god?”

My first encounter with pagan religion was when I was a kid in Brazil back in the 1960’s. One evening in Rio de Janeiro, my dad took us to the beach to see the Brazilians (who were nominally Catholic) practicing another religion called Macumba. The people we saw were hedging their bets by offering flowers to the sea goddess and burning candles to various other powers. What I saw gave me a creepy feeling. I thought, How can these people dare to worship another god on the side? Don’t they know what God has said? Aren’t they afraid?

In the 1st Commandment, God requires us to make a decision, a decision to break off the worship of all foreign gods. We may not realize how hard a decision that was for the people of ancient Israel. They were surrounded by a pantheon of attractive deities competing for a market share in their hearts. Who could survive without Baal the fertility god to bless your fields, flocks, and families? Who could get along without Molech to rescue you in time of trouble? How could a woman go through childbirth without a small image of Ashtarte at her side to keep her safe? To people who did not grow up with Jewish or Christian backgrounds to help them out, the choice was as tough as the question, Who gets clothes cleaner, Tide or Oxydol?

Today we are not immune to choices about who we’re going to worship. There are all kinds of spirituality out there on the market: Native American, New Age, Hindu, Buddhist, not to mention the old pagan gods of Europe or pseudo-Christian cults. The issue is not what name we use for God. The real issue is: WHO is being named? The worshippers of Baal claimed that their god was just the God of the Bible under another name. (We talked about this in our program on Elijah back on September 18.) Today’s Hindus do the same as the worshippers of Baal once did: they say we worship the same God by another name. But when we get past the name and see who is being worshipped, we may find we’re talking about a very different God.

You may say, “No problem! There’s no danger that I’m going to get involved with any foreign deities or religions. I’m safe on this one!” What we forget is that today, the idols who compete with God for our devotion don’t usually have names like Zeus or Krishna or Kona. The truth is that all of us have objects of devotion that threaten to crowd God off the throne of our lives.

Martin Luther observed that a person’s god is that to which they give their final obedience, and from which they expect their highest help. Your God is the person or object that has supreme authority over your life, the One or the object to which you have made your ultimate commitment, whoever or whatever that may be. “If I’ve gotta make a choice, I’ll serve (fill in the blank)” – the answer is your God or gods. Your God is the one who shapes your everyday decisions in life, whoever grabs the priority share of your attention.

Is your god entertainment? Have television or movies become the priority objects of our devotion? Are they what we live for? For some, an entertainer may be their god. From Frank Sinatra to Elvis to the Beatles to Garth Brooks, not to mention movie stars – all of these have fans who worship them.

Is your god the acquiring of possessions? It’s amazing the power that a new car or computer or home or the latest tech device can have over us. The same goes for any possession we have grown to love too much. Is it just a car? Is it just a home? Or has it become our god? Money itself can become a god in Martin Luther’s definition of the word: the power to which we give our ultimate obedience, and from which we expect our highest help. We can be more devoted to our job or our investments or the pleasure we get from our income than we are to God, the One from whom all these blessings flow. The apostle Paul points out that coveting, the desire for more, is a form of idol worship.

Columnist Andy Crouch talks about how technology has unwitting become a god for many of us. How many of us would feel lost if our car or computer breaks down, or our smart phone quits working? Technology promises to give us god-like powers. When our high-tech idols fail, we get devastated. We’ll give whatever they demand to get them working again. What was meant to serve us becomes our master.

What else is there that competes with God for our devotion? Who or what is our ultimate obsession? If it’s not God, we’re never going to be happy. Any obsession that is less than God is a dead-end street. Whatever takes the place of our devotion to God, whatever takes that place in our heart that rightfully belongs to God, becomes a god in itself. We may be obsessed with food, money, sex, work, recreation – all of these are GOOD, but not good enough to be our God.

And for those who claim they have no God, self becomes the object that automatically fills the void. You say, “I am the only one I serve. Reality is what I say it is. I am the one who decides what is right and wrong. I am my own ultimate concern.” God’s toughest competition is not the worship of an Eastern or tribal god, but Bob-ism, the design-your-own god, the worship of self.

Who or what are we living for? Who occupies the Chief Executive Officer’s chair in our life? Who’s calling the shots? Whatever we place at the center of our life is going to control what we think and what we do, across the board. It can and will make an eternal difference for us. Whatever we’ve placed at the center of our life, whatever we’ve placed on the throne of our heart, whoever or whatever we’re relying on for security, guidance, wisdom, or power, is going to fail us, unless it’s the one true God. Nobody else is worthy of worship. Nobody else is worth living for. Nobody else deserves to be at the center of our lives.

God wants our single-hearted devotion. God knows we’ll never be happy any other way. God wants to set us free from masters that can never give us the happiness they promise. God wants us to bow to no other object of worship. God says in the 1st Commandment, “I am the One and only. Accept no substitutes!”

So God makes it clear from the very start that there is only one God, and all others are false and are unworthy of worship. 40 years later, Moses reminds the people in Deuteronomy 4:39: “The Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath: there is no other.” Later on, God says in Isaiah 43:10: “Before me was there no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” God repeats it in Isaiah 45:22: “I am God, and there is no other.” And God says it also in Joel 2:27: “I, the Lord, am your God, and there is no other.”

So what do we do with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Are there 3 divine beings or objects of worship? If so, how does that fit with the voice of the One who speaks to us in the 1st Commandment? Which one of the 3 speaks to us from Mount Sinai? Someone may say, “That’s Heavenly Father who is speaking. He is saying that there shall be only one God with whom we have to do, at least, for us mortal humans who are part of this creation.”

That explanation does not fit with what God says in the verses I just quoted for you. God says there is “no other” God who ever existed before or alongside of him, nor shall there be any other god after him. God makes it even more clear in the Greatest Commandment: “The Lord your God, the Lord is one.” The canonical Bible makes it clear that there is absolutely only one true God, and that there is no one else in the same league who is worthy of anyone’s devotion.

But some would say that there has to be more than one God. They would claim that the Biblical names Elohim and Jehovah are names for different Gods. If that were true, that would have an impact on the question of which one of these gods is claiming to be the one and only God to be worshipped. But are these names really different names for the same God? Let’s take a closer look at these names for God.

The name Elohīm is the plural form of eloah, one of the 2 Hebrew words for God (the other word is el). “Elohīm” means “gods” in the plural only when the verb is plural. Otherwise, the term elohim means the “sum total of Deity.” The same kind of plural with a singular meaning can be found in the Hebrew word for “life,” which means “life wherever it can be found, life as a whole.” So Elohīm, when it is used as a name, means “Deity / Divinity as a whole.” If there is only one God, that name makes perfect sense. No other Semitic language outside the Bible has this plural term for God with a singular meaning.

The other word for God, El, never has this meaning in the plural. El is actually the name given to the chief god in the Canaanite pantheon, and this word can be used for any sort of superhuman power, including angels. Two of the best examples of this word used in the plural are in Psalm 82 (“you are gods, sons of the Most High”), and Exodus 15:11 (“who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?”). It’s the singular term we find in the name Immanu-El, “God Is With Us,” and in the name El Shaddai, often translated “God Almighty.”

The name Jehovah is a modern mispronunciation of God’s sacred name Yahweh. Some believe that Jehovah is actually a God separate from Heavenly Father. They usually believe that he is Jesus Christ, known as Jehovah by OT believers before his birth in Bethlehem, according to this theory.

The overwhelming evidence, however, proves that Elohim and Jehovah are the exact same God under different names. The 2 names are often used for the same God combined in the same sentence. Here are some examples. Isaiah 45:18 says: “For thus says Jehovah, who created the heavens; he (singular) is Elohīm.” Deuteronomy 4:35 says: “So that you might know that Jehovah, he (singular) is the Elohīm; there is no other.” 2 Samuel 7:28 says: “O Lord Jehovah, you (singular) are the Elohīm.” 1 Kings 8:60 says: “All the people of the earth shall know that Jehovah, he (singular) is the Elohīm; there is no other.” 1 Kings 18:37 says: “So that this people may know that you (singular), Jehovah, are the Elohīm.” 2 Kings 19:15 says: “O Jehovah, Elohīm of Israel…you (singular) are the Elohīm, you alone.” Isaiah 45:5 says: “I am Jehovah, and there is no other; besides me there is/are no Elohīm.”

 

We also have Jehovah and Elohīm paired together as one compound name 37 times in the Hebrew Bible, starting in Genesis 2:4, where God is referred to as the “Lord God.” I also am not counting the numerous times we find expressions like Isaiah 43:3, “I am Jehovah your Elohīm” or Deuteronomy 6:4, “You shall love Jehovah your Elohīm.”

 

As I said earlier, the Hebrew text gives us some strong signals when Elohīm is intended to be singular: whenever Elohīm is the subject of a singular verb, or is modified by a singular adjective, pronoun, or participle. Here are some examples. Genesis 5:24 says: “Enoch walked with the Elohīm, and he was not, for Elohīm took (singular verb) him.” In both Genesis 41:28 and 25, it says: “The Elohīm has shown (singular verb) what he is doing (singular participle).” Exodus 18:16 speaks of “the statutes of the Elohīm and his (singular suffix) laws.” Elijah says in his contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:24: “The Elohīm who answers (singular verb) by fire, he (singular pronoun) is the Elohīm.” Nehemiah 8:6: “Ezra blessed Jehovah, the great (singular adjective) Elohīm.” Psalm 86:8-10 says: “There is no one like you (singular) among the Elohīm, O AdonaiYou (singular) alone are Elohīm.”

 

You can read my entire post on this subject on either of our 2 websites under the title “Is Elohim Jehovah or a Pantheon?” Clearly, Jehovah and Elohim are 2 names for the same God, and clearly this God claims to be the only true God that exists. Yet the Bible also clearly teaches that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all fully God. All 3 are distinct persons, yet all of them are the same God. The early church did not invent the idea of a triune God; they simply unpacked what was already there in God’s word. I testify to you that the triune God is the one true God; any other god is an idol. (Find out more about the Biblical case for the triune God in our March 21st broadcast.)

As we wrap up our look at the meaning of the 1st Commandment, what about angels? Angels are not resurrected humans who are on their way to godhood. Both cherubim and seraphim (2 kinds of angels) are said to have wings. In Revelation 14, an angel flies. Do these sound like resurrected humans? I don’t think so! Hebrews 2:7 says that humans are “made a little lower than the angels,” and Hebrews 1:14 clearly says that angels are SPIRITS. They are the “sons of God” in Job 38:7 who existed long before humans were created. The word angel (both the Hebrew mal’ak and the Greek angelos) means literally “messenger.” Whenever they are sent by humans to carry messages to other humans, the word means human messengers. But many times the word can mean only supernatural beings. These beings we call angels are spirit, not flesh, but they are all lower than God.

As we look at the 2nd Commandment, we’ll take a look at why God cannot be and must not be visualized or pictured as a being who can be seen by the eye of mortal humans. Join us as we explore the meaning of the 2nd Commandment next time on Biblical Words and World!

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