“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20.3, ESV
In the prologue to the Ten Commandments, God sets the stage for the giving of his law. He reminds Israel of his name, his nature, their relationship to him, and his work to redeem them from Egypt. In short, the prologue announces that God has the right to give laws to his people, even laws that demand absolute loyalty as does the first commandment. Yahweh rightly commanded Israel to honor him and him alone as God.
As Israel journeyed through the wilderness and into the promised land, they would be tempted to violate this first commandment numerous times. In the coming years they would face, Baals, Asherahs, Ashtoreth, Milcom, Moloch, Dagon, Chemosh, and likely many other false gods who remain unnamed in Scripture. In addition to these named idols, we see that Israel is held accountable by God for treating money, power, politics, and self as gods to be served. In short, anything (a named idol, an object, an idea, a relationship, etc.) could be exalted in such a way that as to violate the first commandment by bringing another god before Yahweh.
When the various violations and potential violations are all brought together, we can organize the violations of the first commandment into four categories:
1) Denying the existence or attributes of Yahweh;
2) Ascribing to any false god other those attributes which belong uniquely to Yahweh;
3) Ascribing to any false god the works which belong uniquely to Yahweh; and
4) Seeking from any false god the fulfillment of the promises given by Yahweh.
The New Testament, unsurprisingly, presents a similarly broad understanding of what it means to have a false god, or be an idolator. The New Testament adds to the list of abstract gods already mentioned – possessions, pleasure and entertainment, and food. In addition, we see that Jesus is God, and he must be worshipped as God. Therefore, the four categories of idolatry apply to our thinking about Jesus as well. So, to seek the promises secured for us by Christ (promises of forgiveness, hope, security, inheritance, identity, righteousness, etc.) in any place other than Christ, whether a named idol or a speck of dust, is to violate the first commandment.
At this point, if we are honest, we find ourselves guilty of violating the first commandment in numerous ways; therefore, lest we end in despair, let us recall the work of Christ. Recall that the Father sent the Son in order that in Christ “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8.4, ESV). We see this fulfillment clearly in the temptation of Christ. When Satan tempted Jesus with finding his comfort in the world, Jesus resisted Satan saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4, ESV). When Satan attempted to get Jesus to presume upon God’s protection, thereby exalting himself above his Father and making God his servant, Jesus resisted Satan saying, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4.7, ESV). When Satan commanded Jesus to bow down before him, Jesus rebuked Satan saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4.10, ESV). From these verses, and other like them, we see clearly why the author of Hebrews wrote, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15, ESV). As Paul reminds us, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5.21, ESV). Christ perfectly obeyed the law then suffered a sinner’s death in order that we sinners for whom Christ died might be accepted by God as if we had perfectly obeyed his law.
The first commandment unveils our idolatrous heart and drives us to Christ where we find the One who obeyed in our place and bore our sin on the cross.