The First Commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” So the beginning of all Law is God’s command to “fear, love, and trust in Him above all things” (Luther’s Small Catechism, 1st Comm.).
This picture shows a model of an ancient Greek altar, built to honor “the unknown god.” The apostle Paul encountered an altar like this in Athens (Acts 17:22ff). The ancient Greeks worshiped many gods, and they were even willing to honor the gods of other religions and cultures. As this altar “to the unknown god” shows, some people kept their minds open to gods they did not know about.
God spoke to the children of Israel through his prophet Moses. After giving them the Ten Commandments for a second time (Deuteronomy 5:6-21), God makes a great proclamation: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This became a basic creed, or doctrinal statement, for Old Testament-era believers. From these words it is clear that we are not to join in worshiping many gods. The children of Israel stood out from other people, because they worshiped one God, and only one God.
TO KNOW GOD RIGHTLY
Look at those words from Deuteronomy 6:4 one more time. While it is clear that there is one God, that one God is named three times in this short, simple sentence. So it is not enough merely to have one god – whichever god that might be. It is vitally important to believe in a particular God – the God who is Three in One – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And what does this Three-in-One God expect of us? “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
The First Commandment warns against the sin of idolatry. Anything in our life or our heart that matters more than the Triune God, is an idol: a manmade image, a false god. When we choose to please ourselves rather than God, we sin against this commandment. When our love of power, wealth or pleasure leads us to sin against God’s commandments, we break this law. When we trust our own abilities, our good works, or other people instead of God, that is idolatry. Whatever we are more afraid to lose than God’s love, is an idol. Yes, we all fall short of loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength.
YOUR GOOD NEWS
But thanks be to God! In Christ, God came into our world and became a man (Philippians 2:5ff). When Jesus appeared on earth, He revealed the living God to mankind (John 1:18). Jesus is the “unknown God” that so many seek, as Paul preached to the Greeks in Acts 17. And in Matthew 4:8-11, Jesus overcame the temptation to worship any other god. So Jesus kept the First Commandment for us. Then, by His innocent death on the cross, Jesus bought God’s forgiveness for all our sins of idolatry.
Now we can join with the prophet Micah and say, “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity, and passing over [our] transgression…. He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).
IMAGE: Altar "to the unknown god", Villa Kerylos, model of a Greek villa around 450 BCE, built by French historian and archaeologist Theodore Reinach, 1905. See also 14-02-06/30-41. Photo Credit : Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY