I wonder how our Heavenly Father feels watching the human beings He created worshiping and praying to gods that’ve never existed. I have a notion it’s not unlike mine would be if someone stared at and conversed with an imaginary person next to me. I’d say, “Um, you do know there’s nobody there, right?” What I’m trying to convey is this: There’s no God except the One who spoke to Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, etc. To address any other “deity” is akin to praying or bowing to a brick wall. God is perfect and always good but He’s also understandably offended when folks aim their devotion and supplications not at Him but into the equivalent of thin air. That’s why the first commandment He gave Moses is “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God had to literally set that in stone as immutable law #1 else the nine that followed would carry no weight whatsoever. “No other gods” implies there aren’t any others. To borrow a modern phrase, it’s His creation; we just live in it. And, because the Ten Commandments come from the One True God, He also gave us the capacity to grasp them mentally. Timothy Keller wrote, “If there’s no God, we shouldn’t trust our cognitive faculties at all. If we believe God exists, then our view of the universe gives us a basis for believing that cognitive faculties work, since God enabled us to form true beliefs and knowledge.” Yet, even though God kept it kindergarten simple, His people couldn’t even obey the first law on the list.
By the time only a handful of centuries had passed after Moses brought the tablets down from Sinai there were a lot more Israelites worshiping a non-existent god named Baal than the God of Abraham. Only the prophet Elijah had the guts to call God’s people onto the carpet for disrespecting the One who’d delivered their ancestors from slavery. He had them all gather at Mount Carmel and asked them, “How long are you going to be paralyzed by indecision? If the LORD is the true God, then follow him, but if Baal is, follow him!” (1 Kings 18:21). The crowd sheepishly pleaded the fifth so Elijah proposed a “Battle of the Prophets” in which he (and God, of course) would take on 450 of Baal’s robed honchos. The objective wasn’t complicated. A butchered bull would be placed atop a stack of kindling and the real God would torch it. Winner takes all. The Baal bunch bit the bait. Their futile and very noisy wailing/beseeching could probably be heard in western Spain but nary a spark flew. Elijah heckled them mercilessly, suggesting perhaps Baal was sleeping off a hangover or had gone fishing. Enraged, the 450 Baal bozos yelled even louder and started mutilating themselves out of frustration as the pyre remained unlit. “Throughout the afternoon they were in an ecstatic frenzy, but there was no sound, no answer, and no response” (1 Kings 18:29). Finally, after almost destroying the woodpile, they cried “uncle.” Baal had bailed on them. Elijah calmly put the altar back together, had a crew drench the whole thing with water three times and then said a short prayer. God immediately sent “fire from the sky” that reduced the whole thing to ashes. The fickle crowd quickly switched allegiance and promptly executed the 450 cheerleaders for the losing team.
What’s astounding is that even after all God had done for His people, He had to put on yet another spectacular show to prove He’s the only God there is. However, this astounding extravaganza still wasn’t enough. In short order they went back to worshiping other gods again. Jeremiah later exclaimed, “The religion of these people is worthless. They cut down a tree in the forest, and a craftsman makes it into an idol with his tools. …Such idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field. They cannot talk. They must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them because they cannot hurt you. And they do not have any power to help you” (Jeremiah 10:3, 5). Now, while the objects of our idolization have changed over the centuries, our tendency to idolize things that are in no shape or form God hasn’t. In fact, since the 60s society has erected so many barriers between man and God many don’t even think He exists anymore. Or that, if He does exist, He’s no longer relevant. The secular seeds planted in our education systems in the 70s and 80s have matured and grown to be huge forests of sarcastic indifference and unbelief in Millennials and Gen-Xers. In the lives of many people God can’t be located because they’ve never let Him take a step on their property.
After the 9/11 terror attack it looked for a while that God would come back into favor. Senseless tragedies reliably compel even nonbelievers to look to the Heavenly Father for help and reassurance. Alistair Begg reflected on that awful time, writing, “The ‘God is dead’ slogan of the 1960s was to be replaced. ‘God is back,’ the newspapers declared, as countless individuals who’d been quite content to live without any thought of God went in search of spiritual solace. What a moment of opportunity! When Jesus saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion because He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Responding as Christ did, we believers declared Him to be the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep. We affirmed that all who came before Him were thieves and robbers and that He alone is the gate that leads to the safety of forgiveness and eternal life.” Sadly, that renewed interest in Christianity was as short-lived as our memory of how distraught and frightened the citizens of our country were in 2001. Recent polls show that only a fourth of Americans believe Jesus Christ provides the sole path to heaven. Even more disturbing is the fact that half of the other three-fourths consider themselves to be “highly committed” evangelicals! It’s obvious the preachers of the “prosperity gospel” have significantly watered down the potency of God’s first commandment. We’ve put “other gods before him” yet again.
Christians must return to the Bible for guidance during these troubled times and step forward or we’ll remain insignificant bystanders watching the world plunge into barbarism. In the Scriptures we notice the Old Testament prophets weren’t telling foreigners to avoid chasing after empty idols, they were talking to God’s chosen people. The same warning applies to the Church of the current age. We must emphasize without apology there’s a distinct difference between the Christian faith and all other religions. And that just accepting there might be “some kind of God up there” won’t save a person’s soul. At the same time we must avoid stirring up unproductive animosity as we spread the Gospel. Jesus practiced social tolerance. So should we. It means treating Muslims, Hindus, Jews and even Scientologists with genuine courtesy and respect while maintaining an unwavering insistence that what we stand for is the only truth that can wash us clean of the stains of our sins. In other words, we must be ready to defend our faith rationally, using our logic-based knowledge of the Bible. We should never compromise and say there’s an alternate route to salvation. There can only be one truth. For instance, Hindus believe God has incarnated many times. Christianity declares it’s only happened once in the person of Jesus Christ. Reason says both can’t be right but millions of people are all too willing to set reason aside when it comes to religion.
Ravi Zacharias wrote, “Hinduism and Bahaism have long challenged the concept of a single way to God. The Hindu religion, with its multifaceted belief system, vociferously attacks such exclusivity. Jesus unequivocally stated God is the Author of life and meaning in life lies in coming to Him. This assertion would be categorically denied by Buddhism, which is a nontheistic if not atheistic religion. Jesus revealed Himself as the Son of God who led the way to the Father. Islam considers that claim to be blasphemous. How can God have a Son? Jesus claimed we can personally know God and the absolute nature of His truth. Agnostics deny that possibility. Philosophically, you can believe anything, so long as you don’t claim it to be true. Morally, you can practice anything, so long as you don’t bring Jesus Christ into it.”
Truth has become a flexible commodity and that makes it increasingly difficult to hold on to Bible-based convictions. To openly state there’s such a thing as absolute truth, that it’s knowable and, furthermore, that God isn’t whatever an individual wants Him to be can get us thrown out of the PC crowd in a hurry. But, like the apostle Paul, we must be bold and courageous when witnessing for our Lord whether it’s to a closed-minded agnostic or a cluster of misdirected “New Age” Christians. Paul told the know-it-alls in Athens, “The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone!” (Acts 17:24-25). And that’s just a snippet! I suspect there were a lotta jaws resting on the floor following Paul’s full sermon and probably more than a little consternation in the air. Yet Paul stayed true to his calling, as should we. When we see a false idol we must label it as such regardless of the reprimands we may incur because God’s first commandment excludes all gods invented by human beings. We must adamantly insist on nothing less than the real deal. No hollow substitutes will do for those who love the Living God. Just before the Israelites were to enter the Promised Land they heard these words: “Now obey the LORD and worship him with integrity and loyalty. Put aside the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and worship the LORD. If you have no desire to worship the LORD, choose today whom you will worship, whether it be the gods whom your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living” (Joshua 24:14-15). Bob Dylan wasn’t kidding when he crooned, “Gotta Serve Somebody…” The question is this: Are you going to serve the great I AM or a god that doesn’t exist?
In Exodus the story of the liberation of God’s people from under Pharaoh’s harsh rule was a foreshadowing of the redemptive salvation Christ’s death and resurrection would make possible for every man and woman. Thus a Christian should never place another god above Jesus because, as our Savior clearly said to Philip, “The person who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). What Joshua said to the Israelites is applicable to 21st century believers. If we’re to serve the Living God we must rid ourselves of any idol that siphons off our devotion to Him. Satan will tempt us to become complacent and start opining that as long as something isn’t made of wood, metal or stone it’s not an idol. Begg wrote, “The sobering truth to be faced up to is this: Anything or any person (including myself) that claims our primary loyalty has become ‘another god.’” Solomon wrote, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life” (Proverbs 4:23). We must ask ourselves, “What or who is the source of my life?” and “Who or what has my heart?” Blatantly evil things, for the most part, are easy to identify and dodge. The tougher challenge is taking things or activities we find enjoyable and relatively harmless and becoming so enamored with them they become idols. Because our all-too-human hearts are inherently corrupt, what starts out as a wholesome hobby can quickly become an obsession. In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters the devil instructs one of his demons to encourage Christians to indulge in “good things” at the wrong time or in the wrong amounts because it’ll lead to prideful gloating. God said, “Wise people should not boast that they are wise. Powerful people should not boast that they are powerful. Rich people should not boast that they are rich. If people want to boast, they should boast about this: They should boast that they understand and know me. They should boast that they know and understand that I, the LORD, act out of faithfulness, fairness, and justice in the earth and that I desire people to do these things” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
As chaotic America often seems, compared to most of the rest of the world, we’ve got it made. But the “good life” we have can lead to what Begg calls “the temptation to forget the Creator because of a preoccupation with the creation.” Because God was taking good care of His people Moses had to continually warn them to stay faithful in obeying God’s commands. He told them that when their bellies were full, sitting in their comfortable homes surrounded by flocks of cattle and sheep, “…be sure you do not feel self-important and forget the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the place of slavery” (Deuteronomy 8:14). The best method of preventing taking God for granted is through self-examination and by praying God opens our eyes. “Examine me, and probe my thoughts! Test me, and know my concerns! See if there is any idolatrous tendency in me, and lead me in the reliable ancient path!” (Psalm 139:23-24).
Something we don’t like to hear is that our most precious earthly relationships can become idolatrous. There’s a temptation to make our marriages more important to us than God. Even more tempting is the urge to idolize our children. We all know parents who’ve done that and I’m probably guilty of it myself. The truth is that our family unit as a whole has the potential to become our primary focus instead of God. Now don’t get me wrong. The Bible never downplays the importance of family. What it says is that if we love God foremost there’ll be plenty of love leftover for us to generously shower on those closest to us. Jesus loved his family but when He was informed His mother and brothers were waiting outside He said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). The fact we’re somewhat shocked by our Lord’s response reveals the extent to which we’ve let our families compete for our loyalty to God and doing His will. But Christ understood there’s nothing more important than God.
The first commandment is not negotiable. God says, “I am the LORD! That is my name! I will not share my glory with anyone else, or the praise due me with idols” (Isaiah 42:8). The unexpected irony is that believers who strive to obey God’s laws find that, by doing so, they discover unfettered freedom. I’m talking about freedom from fear, anxiety and hopelessness because “…we know that all things work together for good for those who love God…” (Romans 8:28). Even our eventual death has lost its sting. “You will show me the path of life; In your presence is fullness of joy; At your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Yes, forevermore!
So we wouldn’t get confused, the New Testament made marriage between a man and a woman the ideal model of how we can devote our hearts and minds to God. We know if a marital union is to survive over the long haul, exclusive loyalty is imperative. The bride and groom must be unswervingly focused on their commitment to uphold and maintain unrelenting devotion if their marriage is to last. Begg wrote, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy. As His bride, the church is to keep herself from idols, to keep herself only unto Him. There can be no toying on the part of the bride with the seductive suggestions of pluralism or with the blatant advances of secularism.” Let there be no misunderstanding. God’s law stating “…have no other gods before me” isn’t a recommendation – it’s a demand. And it’s for our own good. Anything or anyone we elevate to godly status will let us down because they have no eternal substance. Don’t let the world distract you from worshiping the One True Great I AM because that’s what Satan wants to see happen more than anything else. That’s why Saint John implored, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Stay faithful.