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Monday, November 15, 2004

No other gods

I often wonder why God gave Israel the first commandment. "You shall have no other gods before me." I mean why did He give the commandment since He had just made the declaration that He is the LORD their God? I get it about the second commandment when he forbade idol-worshipping. But why the first commandment? What is the significance of this commandment? As I said before, just before he gave the first commandment, He declared, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."

I see God doing three things here: First, God was validating their relationship with Him. Second, He was reinforcing what He has done for them and finally, He was reminding them of their former position.

Even before Israel had obeyed an iota of the commandments, even before they knew how to obey, and even before they had an inkling of what it means to keep the commandments, God made an irrevocable declaration, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."

At once, this is a statement of Israel's former position. You were slaves in Egypt. What is happening here in this passage reminds me of one of the most powerful and richest books of the New Testament: the letter of Paul to the Ephesians. In this letter, Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and described for them their glorious position in Christ. In the opening chapters, he prayed for the Ephesians that their eyes might be opened and...

"that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come" (Eph 1: 18b - 21).
But before the Ephesians (and all Christians everywhere) were in this glorious position, Paul reminded them of their former position.

"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath" (Eph 2: 1-3).
This former position was exactly what the Israelites were in. God in Exodus chapter three wanted to remind the nation of Israel that they were far from his kingdom and they were slaves in a foreign land, until He acted in grace and out of His glorious mercy and love. For it is He
"who brougth you out of Egypt."
"But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved" (Eph 2: 4-5).
Just as Paul reminded us Christians that it is God, who out of His great love and richness of mercy made us alive, so God brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt. Because of this great redemptive act, He can then declare unequivocably "I am the LORD, your God."
"Therefore, remember that formerly you ... were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, ... He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit" (Eph 2: 11-18).
What I have done is connected the thoughts of Exodus 3 with Ephesians 2. Paul in Ephesians described the relationship of a people who were once outside of the fellowship and commonwealth of Israel and described that in what Christ had done, all of us who were far away from God have now been brought near. He contrasted this to a special and privileged position of "those who were by birthright in the commonwealth of Israel." This commonwealth was established here in Exodus 3. He then concluded that both those who were without and those who were within now both have access to the Father by one Spirit, due to the redemptive work of Christ.

But over there in Exodus 3, the redemptive work was done before the giving of the commandments. Already right there in verse 1 God declared that He is the God of Israel. Then why command that they ought not have any other God? Doesn't the declaration that He is their God and they His people underscore the fact that they are to have no other God?
The commandment flows out of the relationship. They were already in relationship and the commandment was given not in order that they might be redeemed, or that they might become the people of God, but they are already the people of God and the commandments were given as an act of divine grace.

Why no other gods? What does it mean to say that Israel shall have no other gods? Perhaps this was appealing to the fact that we are made to worship God. And, if we fail to place God in a high priority in our lives, then we will usurp His place with something else.
"As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received" (Eph 4:1).
In other words, the Commandments were given not so much to be obeyed in order to have life, but to live a life that already has been given. Israel, in Egypt, were dead "in their sins" and in slavery. But God, who is rich in mercy, heard their prayers and cries for help (Exodus 3:7-10) and has come down to rescue them, to redeem them and has brought them up out of Egypt, and now, the same Merciful and Gracious God says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me."

To us, who now have benefited by the mercies of God from what Christ has done to redeem us from our former lives of sin, pain, shame and suffering, God is calling us to walk according to the calling we have received, to walk according to His light and according to His word. That is why, just as Israel, who already enjoyed a special relationship with God, and who already enjoyed having the LORD as their God, needed to have as the first commandment, "no other gods" so also we Christians in the new testament are commanded to "no longer walk as we formerly walked," but to "put on Christ" and to "walk in love."

And the beauty of it all, is that He gave us His Holy Spirit to enable us to do so!