"No Other Before Him"
(Delivered Sunday, June 22, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we continue our study of the Ten Commandments; and particularly our study of the first of the ten. And though we've been studying primarily from the New King James Version, I'd like to begin our time together by reading the first commandment as it's found in the old King James translation. It reads:
And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:1-3).
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People today are often put off by the old King James because of its archaic language. They don't like the "thee-s" and "thou-s". But I've deliberately read the King James to you today BECAUSE of the "thee-s" and "thou-s".
Have you ever wondered what they mean? In fact, if you've read from the King James before, have you ever wondered why it seems to bounce back and forth between "thee" and "thine" and the more familiar "you" and yours"? There's a very good reason for the difference; and we should pay careful attention to it. In the Old English of early 1600s (when the King James Bible was translated) if you wanted to address someone in the second person singular pronoun - that is, as if talking to one person only - you would address them as "thee". But, if you wished to speak to more than one person - that is, if you wished to use the second person plural pronoun - you would address them as "you". It was a way of clearly distinguishing between a singular and a plural audience in a formal address or in literature.
If you were to read Exodus 19:3-6 in the King James Version, for example, you'd find that God speaks to an individual (Moses) and tells him what to tell a group of people (the Israelites). It says,
And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou [and individual] say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye [a group of people] have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you [a group] on eagle's wings, and brought you [a group] unto myself. Now therefore, if ye [a group] will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye [a group] shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine; and ye [a group] shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou [that is, Moses - an individual] shall speak unto the children of Israel (Exodus 19:3-6).
This feature of Old English makes it possible for you to read the King James Version and tell - at a glance - whether someone is addressing a single person or a whole group of people.
Now even although I have a great love for the King James Version, I'm not telling you this to defend that translation as better than all others; because I believe God has given us many good English translations that are well supported by reliable textual scholarship. Instead, I'm sharing this particular advantage of the old King James Bible with you because I want to remind you of something we discovered last week; that is, the personal character of the first commandment and - indeed - of all the commandments.
Do you remember how it reads in the King James Version? Perhaps now you can appreciate the significance of what it is affirming when it says:
And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee [an individual] out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou [an individual] shalt have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:1-3).
Can you see it? The King James Version truly represents how God is speaking in the original language. Even though He is addressing a vast group of people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, God is directing this commandment to individuals. He intended these words to be personally and individually applied; and I believe we can take them as being directly applicable to you and me as individuals. We - meaning you, and meaning me - are to have no other gods before Him.
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Now, another thing I want to remind you of is how this commandment - as with each of the ten individual commandments - has two aspects: first is the explicit commandment itself, to which we are obligated; and second is the contrasting (or "flip-side") implication of that command, to which we are also obligated.
As we mentioned last week, if a commandment tells us to do a particular thing, it not only commands the specific action to be performed but also implies - with it - an action to be avoided in the performance of it. And likewise, if a commandment prohibits us from doing something, it not only commands that action to be avoided, but also implies - with it - an action to be performed instead in the avoiding of it. We are equally obligated to both aspects of each command: not only to what it commands us to do, but also to what it commands us to avoid.
In the New King James Version, this commandment reads:
And God spoke all these words, saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
The explicit commandment is such that we are prohibited from having any other gods before the one true God. But we are also equally obligated to the contrasting action implied in this commandment - that each and every one of us is to make sure that we "have" the one true God as our God. It's not enough that we don't worship false gods. Atheists and agnostics don't bow down to idols; but they obviously aren't, because of that, keeping the the first commandment. This is a command to every man and woman, every boy and girl, "have" the one true God as their God. There is no other option; we are commanded to have God as our God.
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This is a command then, directed to every single individual, to not only have no other gods before the one true God, but also to be sure to "have" the one true God! And as we also discovered last week that to "have" God as your God means, among other things, that you bow down and humbly submit to the truth about God as He has revealed it - that is, that you repent of any personal rejection of God's disclosure of Himself, and instead accept Him as He reveals Himself to be. It means that you don't try to change God into an image of what you would prefer Him to be, but accept Him as He truly is. To "have" God as your God also means you not only bow to the revealed truth about Him, but also that you actively worship and adore Him as He truly is. It means that you have His revealed nature, His divine attributes, and His just actions, as the objects of your deepest love and affection; and that you actively express that love and affection in both public and private acts of worship toward Him. To "have" God as your God means that you also trust Him - that you live a life of dependency upon Him as your primary Helper and Provider. It means that you turn to Him and cry out to Him for rescue in your needs and trials. It means that you depend on His wisdom and guidance in everyday life. And finally, we concluded that to "have" God as your God means that you obey Him - that His will, as revealed in the Scriptures, is what guides your steps and informs your decisions. It means that your great motivation in your actions is to seek first His revealed will and His righteousness.
That - at the very minimum - is what it means to individually, personally, "have" God as your God. If you don't accept the truth about Him, reverently worship Him, consistently trust Him, and sincerely obey Him, then it's really not true to say that you "have" Him as your God.
And this is an appropriate time to add one more aspect of what it means to truly "have" God as your God - and this is an absolutely legitimate implication of the first commandment given the context of the whole message of the Bible. You must have entered into a relationship with this one true God through an active, personal faith in His Son Jesus Christ; or else, the simple fact is that you do not "have" the one true God as your God at all.
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that there is absolutely no way to "have" God except through Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5) - there are no other "mediators"; just one. Jesus Himself declared that He was the exclusive way, the truth, and the life; and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). And the apostle John says, "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also" (1 John 2:23).
A man or woman may claim to believe the truth about God, claim to worship God, claim to trust God, and even claim to obey God. But all those claims mean nothing if they refuse to acknowledge God's condemnation of their sin, and refuses to believe in their own helplessness to make themselves righteous before a holy God, and refuses to accept God's way of being reconciled to Him - that is, through the forgiveness of sin and the righteousness God offers by grace through faith in the sacrifice of His Son Jesus on the cross. I'll put it flatly: If someone, after hearing the message of the Gospel, will not place their trust on the cross of Jesus Christ, then the fact is that - whatever else they may say - they do not believe the revealed truth about the one true God, do not truly worship Him, do not truly trust Him, and do not truly obey Him. They do not "have" Him as their God.
It is absolutely impossible then to obey the implication of the first commandment - and to "have" the one true God as your God - if you do not place your trust in the cross of Jesus Christ. Have you placed your trust in the cross of Jesus yet? Do you truly "have" His Father as your God through faith in Him?
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Now; having said all that, we have not yet considered the actual prohibition of this commandment. So far, we've only looked at the positive implication of it - that we are to "have" God as our God. I would maintain that it was right, though, that we began with this positive implication; and this is true for two reasons. First, it's appropriate to begin our approach to this commandment - and indeed, to all the commandments - with the attitude of "having" God as our God, because that's where God Himself begins it.
Look at the commandment again. Do you see how God introduces it? He starts off by saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (v. 2). Once again, I remind you that He's addressing His hearers individually in saying this. He is, as it were, pointing at each individual Jewish man and woman assembled before Him at Sinai, and saying to them, "You over there; I am the LORD your God. And you, I am the LORD your God too. And yes; you way in the back ... I am the LORD your God as well. I am the LORD your God - you personally - who brought you, as an individual man or woman, out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." He doesn't begin by making a list of all the false gods that the Egyptians worshiped, and then say, "You shall not have these as your gods as your god." Instead, He introduces Himself to them as their God, and announces what He has done for them in redeeming them from their bondage in slavery; and its only THEN that tells them that they are to have no others before Him. In other words, He starts with a presentation of Himself to them; and so it's appropriate that we began in the same way - by first focusing on having Him as our God.
But another reason why we should begin in this way is because the call to "have" God as our God is the precisely the reason WHY we are commanded to have no other gods before Him. To "have" the one true God must, by definition, mean the rejection of all false gods. He alone is God, and there truly is no other God to have than Him. God Himself teaches us this. "Before Me," He says, "there was no God formed, nor shall there be after Me. I, even I, am the LORD, and besides Me there is no other" (Isa. 43:10b-11). He says, "I am the First and I am the Last; besides Me there is no God" (44:6). He asks, "Is there a God besides Me? Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one" (44:8). Moses declared, "Therefore know this day, and consider it in your heart, that the LORD Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other" (Deut. 4:39).
There is no other god but the one true God. So, the place to begin, in considering the commandment to have no other gods before the one true God, is to understand what it means that there is but one true God, and what it means to "have" this God as our God.
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This brings us to the prohibition itself. It's a commandment that prohibits idolatry - that is, the worship of a false god. And so first, let's consider what is meant by a false god.
When God rescued the Israelites and brought them out of their captivity in Egypt, He brought them out of a land that was filled with the worship of other gods. And throughout its history, the Jewish people had to deal with the problem of the worship of other gods. This was also true of believers in New Testament times. I consulted a Bible dictionary 1 and found 39 specific false deities mentioned in various places in Scripture. And this, of course is what we would automatically think of when we think of having another god before the true one - a false deity, often represented by a statue or figure of some kind, or worshiped in some kind of temple through some kind of sacrifice or some form of deviant behavior. Christians in many cultures of the world today still deal with the same sorts of things.
It's even true today. There are shops and stores in every major American city that sell actual idols and images of false gods for its customers to take home and worship. It's not something that just happened long ago; because its a product of our falleness. And as believers we must live in the midst of such things while bearing witness to the fact that there is only one true God. The apostle Paul wrote to Corinthian believers who lived in a very ungodly culture that was utterly given over to the idolatrous worship of false gods. He told them,
... We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live (1 Cor. 8:4-6).
So this commandment is a prohibition against having a false god instead of the one true God. King David wrote, "Their sorrows shall be multiplied who hasten after another god; their drink offerings of blood I will not offer, nor take up their names on my lips" (Psalm 16:4). We are also forbidden by this commandment from joining a false god to the true God - as if we could have them both. God says, "I will not give My glory to another" (Isa. 48:11). And we are forbidden from leaving the one true God in order to pursue a false one. The Book of Judges tells us that, after Joshua died,
Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtoreths (Judges 2:11-13).
But I would suggest that this command also prohibits us from joining in association with those who worship false gods, or from in any way fitting in with or accommodating idolatry. This was a great problem for the Corinthian believers to whom Paul wrote. They felt that, because they worshiped the one true God, they could safely enter into the food markets of the temples of these false gods, or even participate in the feasts to false gods. They felt they could "walk the edge" in these things, and not be hurt by them because they weren't really gods. And yet, Paul urged them to "flee from idolatry" (1 Cor. 10:14) - even though he admitted that the things being sacrificed to were not gods. He told them,
... The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He? (1 Cor. 10:20-22).
God, in fact, would have His people not even mention the names of other gods. "And in all that I have said to you," Moses said to the people of Israel, "be circumspect and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let it be heard from your mouth" (Ex. 23:13). As God's people - separated unto Him - we are not even to take the names of false gods upon our lips as if they were gods to be called upon or worshiped. We are to give no recognition to them whatsoever. God wants us exclusively to Himself - and will not share His place in our hearts with anything else. We are absolutely not to have, in any way, any association with other gods.
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Now; in all this, it's easy to think that we are innocent of the violation of this commandment, because we so rarely encounter such forms of idolatry. We don't live in the kind of culture that other people groups in other parts of the world live in. We are not surrounded with temples to false deities; and so we think we're safe. We can easily get by thinking that there are no "false gods" for us to "have" before the true one.
But let's consider carefully what it means to "have" a false god. A false god is more than a mere statue of a false deity. It can also be rightly defined as ANYTHING that we set in the place in our hearts that only the one true God should occupy. That can certainly be a false deity in the sense we've been describing; but it doesn't necessarily have to be.
Let's look at the matter from the perspective of what we've said it means to "have" the one true God. We've said that, for example, to "have" the one true God means that we have our trust in Him above all else, and that we find our ultimate sense of security in Him. But have you found that, when faced with a trial or problem in life, and when at the end of your rope, you discover that you actually have your first and primary trust in other things than in the one true God?
Many people, for example, say they have God as their God, but they trust in earthly riches more than in God for their sense of security. If the Lord were to tell them, "Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me;" they, like the rich young ruler, would walk away sorrowful (Matthew 19:21-22). The Bible says that those who are rich in this present age are "not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy" (1 Tim. 6:17). Yet, people often make money their god, and place that god in the position in their hearts that only God should occupy, because that's what they really trust in.
Many other people say they have God as their God, but they trust in the power of man. They may place their ultimate trust in themselves and in their own ability to solve their problems; or they may place their trust in some other human resource - or even in politicians or human institutions.
You know those post cards and mailing pieces you receive by the bundles every election season? I found a passage the other day that I wish was printed in bold letters on every one of them: "Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his plans perish" (Psalm 146:3-4). Yet, many folks make "man" their god, because that's what they ultimately trust in. The prophet Jeremiah wrote,
Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land which is not inhabited. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is in the LORD. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its root by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit" (Jer. 17:6-8).
Other folks say they have God as their God; but they actually trust more in their own wisdom than in God. If they read what God says to do in the Scriptures, they wont do it if it doesn't make sense to them to do. But the Bible says, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths" (Prov. 3:5-6).
We may not bow down to idols in temples; but we can still have place a false god before the one true God if we trust in these things other than Him. God Himself says to us;
"Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the mighty man glory in his might, nor the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight," says the LORD (Jer. 9:23-24).
Let me pause and ask you right now; does that in which you ultimately trust in reveal that you need to repent of having placed another god before the true one? Does the thing in which you trust in the most reveal that you have broken this commandment?
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We've also said that to "having" the one true God as our God means that we worship and adore Him for who He is - and that we love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But if He were to reveal the truth to you, would you discover that you really love and adore other things more than Him?
Some people, for example, say that thy have God as their God; but in reality, they love earthly things and the pleasures of this world more than Him - and thus reveal that they have another god before the true one. Paul wrote to the Philippian believers and warned them of people who "walk" as Christians, but were not believers at all. You can tell who these false Christians had as their real "god", when Paul said;
Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame - who set their mind on earthly things (Phil. 3:17-19).To have your "belly" as your "god" is to have enthroned earthly pleasures in the place that only the one true God should occupy. Such people love pleasure more than God. Paul warned Timothy that, in the last day, perilous times will come
For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self- control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers or pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
Such people claim God as their God; but if He were to ask them to give up one of their favorite pleasures for Him, or if they were called upon to suffer for His cause in some way, they'd reveal that they really place the god of pleasure before Him.
Other people say they have God for their God - and may even be deeply involved in a church; but in reality, they love power and influence over people more than they love God. They have placed the god of "preeminence" before the one true God. The apostle John once wrote to a church that was being troubled by a church bully, and said,
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God (3 John 9-11).
The prophet Daniel tells us that the Antichrist will worship a "god of fortresses", or as it is in the King James Version, "the God of forces" (Dan. 11:38) - and that's the god he will trust in order to gain world power. Many people reveal, by their love for power, that that's the god they have placed before the one true God in their hearts.
Still others - and I suspect that this will be hard for some to hear - say that they have God as their God; but in reality, they love their family more than they love God. If they ever had to make a choice between following Jesus, or submitting to the objections of their family, they would reveal that they have placed their family as a god before the one true God.
Jesus said a very hard thing:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me (Matthew 10:34-38).
Let me pause again and ask you: does who - or what - you ultimately love reveal that you have placed another god before the one true God?
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A third thing we discovered is that to "have" the one true God as our God means that He is the one that, above all else, we serve and obey. But many people reveal that they have placed another god before the true one by what it is that they ultimately give their service to.
Some, for example, say that they have God as their God; but if faced with the choice between obeying God or obeying man, they will place human authority first.
Now let's be clear; we ought always to obey human government so long as it does not conflict with a command from God. To do otherwise is to disobey God (Rom. 13:1-7). But as you may remember, it was human authority that had commanded the apostles not to proclaim the message of the Gospel that the Lord Jesus commanded them to preach; and yet they kept on preaching. The governing authorities confronted them and said, "Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man's blood on us!". And we're told that Peter and the other apostles said, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:28-29). In this, they revealed that God truly was their God! But many others would show that human authority is really their god, because that's who they ultimately obey. They would turn to God and say, "I'm sorry God; but the people in charge won't allow me do what You tell me to do."
Still others say that God is their God; but they reveal that they have placed another god before the true one in the fact that they serve an earthly treasure. They resist God's call on their lives, and are not whole-heartedly available to Him, because they are devoted to advancing and protecting an earthly treasure more than they are devoted to His service.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Still others say that they have God as their God; but they reveal that they've placed another god before the true one in that they serve "religious ceremonies" more than they serve Him. This is a very subtile and deceptive form of idolatry; because it has the appearance serving God. But God once told disobedient and rebellious Israel;
When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; incense is an abomination to Me, the New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies - I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood (Isa. 1:12-15).
It's a perpetual problem. God desires our hearts; but we - in our sinfulness - with hold our hearts and offer God our rituals instead. And when we do that, we show that we serve the rituals more than we serve God. Paul once wrote to the Galatian believers to remind them that they had been set free from religious ceremonies and rituals as a means of trying to please God. They had been declared righteous in Christ; and they had been released from bondage to such things. But Paul wrote and said,
But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain (Gal. 4:9-11).
They were enamored with ceremonies and rituals as a means of pleasing God. But the writer of Hebrews wrote to his readers and said,
... If the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:13-14).
And so, many people reveal that they have placed another god before the true God, in that they are more prepared to serve religious ritualism than they are to serve Him.
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As you can see; even if you do not bow down in the temple of a false god and actually worship a physical idol, you can still be placing a false god before the true God, and can be living in open disobedience to the first commandment.
Has any of this led you to realize that you must repent this very day of the sin of idolatry? Has God, through His word, revealed to you that you trust something more than Him - or that you love something more than Him - or that you serve something more than Him? Is He now calling you to give Him the place in your heart that only He should occupy? To be honest, I've had to search my own heart in this matter as I've thought through the potential "false gods" I can put in the place of the one true God.
Paul once spoke of how thankful he was for his dear brothers and sisters in Thessalonica. He told them of how everyone was talking about them. "For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thess. 1:9). May God help us today to, like them, turn from idols to serve the living and true God.
1Herbert Lockyer, Sr., gen. ed., Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986), p. 431.
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