August 18, 2019

Exodus 20:3: No Other Gods

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: The Ten Commandments Scripture: Exodus 20:3

The First Commandment: No Other Gods

Please turn with me in your Bible to Exodus 20. If you’re using one of the Bibles we provide, that’s on page 49. Last week, we kicked off a sermon series on the Ten Commandments and did something of an introduction to the commandments. So this week, I think we’re ready to jump in and take a look at what the first commandment has for us. But before we do that, let’s pray. [Prayer]

Blaise Paschal, who was a well-known philosopher of the seventeenth century, once wrote that “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” In other words, every single person in this world wants to be happy. People may be different in many ways, but one thing we all have in common is a desire for happiness. Paschal says this is why some go to war while others avoid it. We might also say this is why some people remain single while others get married. It’s why some people move to Manhattan while others move to Montana. It’s why some people become hedge fund investors while others join a commune. It’s why some people break the law while others keep the law. Everyone’s trying to be happy. 

But here’s what’s interesting: sometimes, the very things we think will make us happy actually make us miserable. One Christian writer named Tim Keller says it like this: “Most people spend their lives trying to make their heart’s fondest dreams come true. Isn’t that what life is all about, ‘the pursuit of happiness’? We search endlessly for ways to acquire the things we desire, and we are willing to sacrifice much to achieve them. We never imagine that getting our heart’s deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us.” Perhaps you’re wondering how in the world than can be the case. How in the world might getting our hearts’ deepest desires actually be the worst thing that can ever happen to us? That’s one of the things we’re going to find out this morning as we examine the first commandment.  

If you look Exodus 20:3, you’ll see that the first commandment is this: “You shall have no other gods before me.” That’s what God said to his people Israel and what he still desires for us today. “You shall have no other gods before me.” That command really has two requirements, which we’ll spend the rest of our time this morning talking about. Number one, renouncing false gods. And number two, worshiping the true God. 

Renouncing False Gods

Let’s begin by looking at that first requirement—renouncing false gods. Back in ancient times, every nation in the ancient near-East had it own gods that they worshiped—or at least entities that they thought were gods. These gods were represented by idols made out of wood, stone, or metal. And it was very important to make these gods happy—typically by sacrificing to them—because that was the way you obtained blessings for yourself. So if you wanted an abundant harvest, you would need to sacrifice to the appropriate god. Likewise, if you wanted lots of children to carry on your family name or victory over your enemies in battle or even knowledge of the future, the way to obtain these various blessings was to sacrifice to whatever god was in charge of dispensing that blessing. Some of the major gods that we find records of in the Old Testament include Ashtoreth, a goddess of the Canaanites connected with fertility, Baal, another god of the Canaanites connected with both fertility and agriculture, Molech, a god of the Ammonites in charge of divination, Chemosh, a god of the Moabites, and Dagon, a god of the Philistines. And again, if you wanted to be blessed and prosperous, it was thought that you needed to sacrifice to these gods. And the greater the sacrifice, the greater favor you supposedly obtained. Tragically, people would sometimes even sacrifice their own children to these gods thinking it would get them greater favor. 

But here in the first commandment, God tells his people in no uncertain terms that worshiping these false gods is absolutely off limits—“You shall have no other gods before me.” God is jealous for our worship. He doesn’t tolerate any rivals. And this jealously is a very appropriate kind of jealousy—kind of like the jealousy that someone who’s married might have for their spouse. Suppose a husband came home to his wife one evening and said to her, “Honey, it’s great to see you. I want to introduce you to someone who’s very special to me. Of course, you’re still very special to me, but I’ve also met someone else who I think is wonderful as well. So I’m going to continue spending time with you, but I’m also going to be spending some time with her and even sleeping over at her house some nights instead of sleeping here. But don’t worry—I’m committed to loving both of you.” How do you think that’s going to go over with this guy’s wife? Probably not very well. She’s probably not going to say, “That’s great, dear, I’m just honored I can still be a part of your life.” Not at all! She’s gonna make it very clear to her husband that he has to choose—and he’d better make up his mind quickly if he knows what’s good for him. 

Now, would any of us say that the wife was being unreasonable or unfair or intolerant in issuing an ultimatum like that? Of course not. She has every right to be jealous for her husband’s devotion in that way. That was the deal when they got married. And in the same way, God has a very appropriate jealousy for us and for our worship. Why does he have such a claim on us? We see the answer to that in the verses we looked at last week that preface the Ten Commandments. Right before God tells his people that they should have no other gods before him, he says to them in verses 1-2, 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. So God had the right to demand his people’s exclusive worship because he’s the one who rescued them from their slavery in Egypt and provided for them during their desert wanderings and who would one day bring them into the Promised Land. He made them everything they are and provided for them everything they have. And of course, he’s the one who created them in the first place. They wouldn’t even exist or be breathing if it weren’t for him. So in a sense, he had a legitimate claim on their worship two times over—because he both created them and rescued them. Likewise, as Christians, God has a claim on us two times over. Not only did God create us—which in itself would be enough for him to require our worship—but he also saved us through the gospel. Just like God rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt, he rescued us from our slavery to sin. So like the Israelites, we owe God our worship two times over. 

Unfortunately, however, we’re also a lot like the Israelites in that we too are frequently drawn into idolatry. Just like the Old Testament records the Israelites turning aside from the worship of God and instead looking to idols, we also are guilty of idolatry in many ways today. Of course, we may not have any statues in our houses that we sacrifice to, but we often give our highest loyalty to things other than God. We orient our lives around things like possessions, money, status, success, food, sex, sports, jobs, and even family. In fact, just about anything can be made into an idol when we become so consumed with a desire for it that, in essence, we begin to worship it. And as you can see from those things I just listed off, many times the things we make into idols are often good things, in themselves. They’re good gifts God gives us to enjoy. But we take these good things and make them into ultimate things. That’s when our interest in them becomes idolatry. 

Jesus says in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” And we could amend that last sentence to say that you can’t serve “God and anything. The word “and” has no place when it comes to the worship of God. You’re either exclusively devoted to him or you’re not devoted to him at all. “No one can serve two masters.”

And understand that the reason God requires that we be exclusively devoted to him isn’t for his good but for our good. Make sure you get that. The reason God requires that we be exclusively devoted to him isn’t for his good but for our good. Because like the gods of the ancient near-East, idols today have a way of destroying us. They may promise prosperity or various forms of happiness, but as we continue devoting ourselves to them more and more and get sucked into worshiping them in a progressively deeper way, they eventually destroy us. One especially obvious and vivid example of this is drug addiction. When someone starts using a drug—such as heroin, let’s say—they quickly get to a point where there they no longer have control over their use of that substance. Instead of them controlling their heroin habit, their heroin habit controls them. Most of us probably know people who have lost pretty much everything because of an addiction like that—their jobs, their health, their homes, their families, and quite often even their very lives. That’s what drugs to do you—they destroy you one “hit” and a time. I actually found out just this past week that my own cousin Tom died from a drug overdose. Tom was just one year older than me. Drugs will destroy you. 

Yet don’t think other idols won’t do that as well. It may not be as obvious or as shocking as with a drug addiction, but any idol will end up destroying us in proportion to the extent to which we worship it. Whenever we take things that aren’t God and elevate them to the place of God in our lives, they begin to exercise a God-like influence and power over us. And that never ends well. How many marriages have been wrecked by people worshiping sex as an idol and looking at pornography? How many people have had their finances ruined by worshiping status as an idol and being driven to rack up more and more credit card debt? How many people have suffered a mental breakdown by worshiping the idol of professional success and working harder and harder until finally, they just can’t do it anymore? How many of the children of those kinds of people have suffered similar mental issues as a result of their parents putting excessive pressure on them to perform on a certain level so they can get into the best colleges? How many people have died at a younger-than-average age because they’ve been worshiping the idol of food and eating too much of the wrong things until it literally kills them? In one way or another, each idol will end up destroying us in its own way in proportion to the extent to which we worship it. 

Every idol is oppressive by nature. It’ll not only leave you empty and unsatisfied, but will in the end destroy you as you devote yourself to it more and more. That’s why I say that God requires exclusive worship from us not for his good but for our good. He’s the only one we can worship who won’t oppress us, enslave us, or destroy us. So God giving us this first commandment of “you shall have no other gods before me” is actually a very loving thing for him to do. He’s not keeping us from happiness but rather protecting us from misery. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all going to worship something. You and I are hardwired to be worshipers by nature. We can’t not worship. The only question is, what will we worship—God or things that aren’t God? 

Worshiping the True God

And that brings us to the positive requirement of this first commandment. You may remember that I said this commandment really has two requirements, and we’ve just looked at the negative one, renouncing false gods. So now, let’s look at the corresponding positive requirement that may not be stated but is certainly implied: worshiping the true God. Now, what does it mean to worship God? I believe worshiping God, in essence, consists of loving God, treasuring God, delighting in God, and trusting God supremely. And by “supremely,” I mean above everything else. We’re loving, treasuring, delighting in, and trusting in God more than anything else in our lives. It really comes back to what Jesus said is the greatest commandment. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Notice that word “all.” That’s a pretty comprehensive word. It means everything. Every part of you—every fiber of your being—should be in a constant, uninterrupted state of loving God supremely. That’s the standard Jesus calls us to. That’s what’s commanded—and what is, in fact, the greatest command. 

You know, a lot of folks consider themselves to be “good people.” And many times, they do a lot of things that are, at least outwardly, very commendable. I knew a guy named Jerry several years ago who was a retired criminal justice professor. And even though he wasn’t a Christian, he was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. In fact, he did more caring and thoughtful things for others than many Christians I know. So not surprisingly, the students at the university where he taught voted him “professor of the year” many times. Everyone loved him—because he really was an extraordinary person in many ways. But Jerry’s kindness toward others isn’t enough to get him into heaven. Why not? Well, you have to understand what the standard is. The standard—as we see implicitly in the first commandment and explicitly in Matthew 22—is to love God with your entire being—“with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That’s the standard. And obviously, it’s a standard no one can attain. I mean, even if you’re a Christian and have had your heart changed by God, how often do you rise to that standard? Has there ever been an hour of your life where you can honestly say you were loving God perfectly and with every fiber or your being for an entire hour? Have you ever even done that for an entire minute? If you’re honest with yourself, it’s pretty questionable. Yet God commands us to love him perfectly—with every fiber of our being—every moment throughout our lives. It’s a command that every human being on the planet has failed to keep—and failed quite miserably. 

And that certainly includes the Israelites. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we see them breaking the first commandment. Instead of devoting themselves to worshiping God wholeheartedly, as the first commandment requires, they worship idols time after time and year after year. In fact, they often do so quite brazenly and unashamedly. And that’s really the problem, both for them and for us. We can’t keep the first commandment. We inevitably and irresistibly find ourselves drawn to various forms of idolatry. One theologian named John Calvin even referred to the human heart as a “factory of idols.”

Thankfully, however, Jesus succeeded where we fail. Luke 4 records Jesus being led by the Holy Spirit into the desert where he fasted forty days. And right at the tail end of his forty-day fast, Satan tempts him. Here’s what happens. Luke 4:5-8: 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’ ” So in contrast to Israel, who failed miserably at keeping the first commandment throughout their history as a nation, Jesus definitively refused to worship anyone or anything other than the one true God. He succeeded where Israel failed, and he succeeded where we fail. 

And here’s the rest of the good news of the gospel. Not only did Jesus live a perfectly righteous life, he also died on the cross to pay for our sins. So here’s what happens. It’s often called “the great exchange.” Jesus takes our sin on himself as he dies on the cross. He suffers the penalty we deserve. Yet not only does he take our sin, he also gives us his righteousness. Jesus kept the first commandment, the second commandment, and every other command God ever gave perfectly throughout his life and offers his righteousness to us. We might say that he clothes us with his righteousness. So he takes our sin and gives us his righteousness. It’s a pretty good deal. And as we put our trust in him to save us through his death and subsequent resurrection, we experience the benefits of that great exchange. So if you recognize this morning that you’ve failed to keep the first commandment and that you’re therefore under God’s condemnation, I can’t encourage you enough to cry out to Jesus for rescue. Stop trusting in your own efforts to be good enough for God and put your trust in Jesus instead. 

And in addition to that, here’s what else Jesus does. Not only does he forgive our sins and not only does he clothe us with his righteousness, he also gives us a new heart. He changes us on the inside so that we love God and delight in God. So after we’ve allowed the first commandment to point us to Jesus and have obtained this new heart, the first commandment should now guide our life. So before conversion, the first commandment points us to Jesus, but after conversion it guides our life. 


So for those who are Christians this morning, how are you doing at keeping the first commandment? To what extent in your everyday life are you truly loving and treasuring and delighting in and trusting in God? Does he mean more to you than anything else in this world? And do your daily decisions reflect that? The way you spend your money, the way you spend your time, the things you say or don’t say, what you prioritize, the goals you pursue—does all of it reflect a heart that beats only for God? As the psalmist says to God in Psalm 73:25-26, 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Does that describe you this morning? Does your desire for God surpass every other desire in your life? Is God the strength of your heart and your portion forever? 

And let me ask this: how passionately do you seek after God during the week? Psalm 42:1-2 says, 1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? And in Psalm 63:1, David cries out, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Is that the way you long for God and the way you seek him? The more you understand what God’s done for you in the gospel, the more you’ll see that the greatest blessing the gospel brings to us is God himself. God certainly gives us many blessings and gifts to enjoy, but he himself is the greatest blessing and the greatest gift ever given. And the more you know of him, the more you’ll love him.

So how can you get more of God? Very simple: saturate your mind with God as he’s revealed in the Bible. Start reading the Bible on a daily basis with the goal of learning more about God and falling more in love with God. You know, it’s good to come away from a passage of the Bible with a practical application—something you’d like to do, a habit you’d like to develop, an action step you’d like to take. That’s good. But what’s your motivation to do those things? I’d like to suggest that the only biblical and enduring motivation to do what the Bible tells us to do is a deep delight in God and love for God. So as you read the Bible, ask yourself, “What does this passage reveal about God?” Then let your mind marinate in that. Let that stir you up to love and desire God more. And it’s okay if that’s your main take-away from your Bible reading that day. You don’t necessarily have to come up with a practical action step every time. If your heart is stirred to love and delight in God more, that’s often enough. That will often shape your life more than five practical action steps. 

After all, if you’ve been a Christian for a decent amount of time, you probably already know most of what you’re supposed to do in order to be obedient. On most days, you’re probably not going to read the Bible and discover that God wants you to do something that you had no clue you were supposed to be doing. As a Christian, you probably already know that you’re supposed to be sharing the gospel and praying and being a good steward of your money and living a holy life. That’s probably not news to you. So most of the time, our problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do but that we don’t do what we know. Kind of like exercise. I’m guessing everyone here knows that exercise is good for your health. You may not know all the statistics about heart disease and life expectancy and other related things, but you probably know that the benefits of exercise for your physical health are very significant. So you know exercise is something you should do. Yet the question that determines whether or not you’ll actually exercise is how motivated you are. Do you care enough about the benefits to actually pursue them? And in the same way, most Christians who have been Christians for a few years have a relatively good idea of what they’re supposed to do. The question, though, is how motivated we are to do it. How much do you love God and long for more of him and want to please him? So if you want to see enduring change in your life as a Christian, seek God himself in such a way that you become captivated by him and thus motivated to live for him. And it’s in that way that the first commandment is the foundation for all the others. Keeping the first commandment of worshiping and loving and delighting in God leads to keeping the other commandments.

other sermons in this series

Nov 24


Exodus 20:17: You Shall Not Covet

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Exodus 20:17 Series: The Ten Commandments

Nov 3


Oct 20


Exodus 20:15: You Shall Not Steal

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Exodus 20:15 Series: The Ten Commandments