You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me: Why the First Commandment Is Foundational for Morality

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This first command, found in Exodus 20:3, stands at the head of the Ten Commandments. It begins in a way that, for some, may seem surprising. One normally thinks about moral commands as relating to our relationship one with another. If the Decalogue had begun with commands such as  “Do not steal,” or, “Do not lie,” and so forth, it would have sounded a lot like an array of moral codes ranging from the Eightfold Path of Buddhism to the Egyptian code of Ma’at to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. All of these ancient codes regulate a whole range of outward behavior, from purchasing property, to settling disputes between people, to divorce, but they do not reference any moral obligation toward God. The Ten Commandments, conversely, build all morality on the foundation of our moral obligation toward God. This reinforces the fact that, biblically speaking, there is no such thing as morality that is not theological. In other words, all morality in our relationships must be first rooted in a right relationship with God.

The first commandment calls us to have no other gods before Him. This command reaches far deeper than merely closing the door on an atheistic worldview. Just because you do not deny the existence of God does not mean that you have kept this commandment. Even if you affirm that God loves you and is the source of your redemption, you may not have fully kept this command. The first commandment is about the whole orientation of our lives. It means the end of a compartmentalized life that gives God a certain portion (like Sunday morning) and then orients the rest of our lives around our own perceived needs and goals.

The New Testament demonstrates the direction of this first command when Jesus Himself is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replies by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36–40 ESV).

No study of the Ten Commandments would be complete without a reflection on this teaching of Jesus. I have already pointed out that the Ten Commandments are a grand summary of the 613 laws of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments even further, as all fall under two general headings: (1) Love God and (2) Love your neighbor. Jesus’ words in Matthew are clearly a summary of the Ten Commandments, since they are divided into these two general areas. The first four commandments deal with loving God (no other gods before Me, no idols, do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, and remember the Sabbath Day) and the last six focus on loving your neighbor (honor your father and mother, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, and do not covet).

When Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He begins by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (vv. 37–38 ESV). Notice that Jesus calls this the “great” and the “first” commandment. It is not just an allusion to the first part of the Ten Commandments (commandments 1–4), but in particular, an exposition of the first of the Ten Commandments. The way we have no other gods before us is to have our whole orientation around the true and living God. We obey this command by loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds! This means that the whole focus of our lives is on Him. It encompasses our hearts, our minds, our whole strength and will.

Jesus Himself gives us the greatest exposition of the first commandment. His use of words like “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” gives us in seed form the full range of human life and activity. When Jesus says we are to love God with our whole hearts, He is not referring primarily to an emotional or privatized love in the way this term is often used to describe our devotion to God. It, of course, does not exclude this. Jesus actually points us to a deeper reality. The first commandment encompasses all of our active energies, our minds, and indeed, the whole orientation of our lives before God. When we roll up our sleeves to serve the poor, we are loving God. When we read the Scriptures and think about the ways of God, we are loving God. When we share our faith with others, we are loving God. The first commandment does not merely happen during a Sunday morning worship service or in our daily times of prayer and devotion. The first commandment is the active God-ward orientation of our whole lives throughout the day. This is the commandment that enables us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17 ESV). It is also the commandment that enables us to not pass the wounded traveler by.

The first commandment is the foundation for our keeping of the whole of the Ten Commandments. It is the most basic reorientation from a life directed toward ourselves to a life directed toward God. Therefore, we should view this first commandment as the doorway into the whole life of faith. It sets our feet on the right path and orients us in the right direction for all that follows.

InvitationEnjoy this entry? This is part of our resource by Timothy Tennent that introduces foundational Christian teaching regarding the Ten Commandments, Baptism and Communion, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the perfect resource to use in catechism classes, Sunday School, or small groups.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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