Lesson 1: The First Commandment

Worshiping false idolsI am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

The command goes on to prohibit making graven images, a command that might appear to be simpler than it really is. It certainly does ban worshiping idols made by human hands that obviously have no power to save people from slavery and genocide. However, other commands in the Torah forbid carving or etching anything in sacred spaces. The intention seems to be making clear God does not depend on human activity in any way. He is to be worshiped as an independent free agent. Humans will only find their freedom in proper relationship to God who is beyond their control.

Christians disagree about whether this is two parts of one command or two separate ones. We shall go with the Roman Catholic and Lutheran numbering that treats it as one. We shall look at making graven images as an insightful way to understand false gods.

Paul explains it in a helpful manner when he speaks of God being the authority that keeps principalities and powers in their proper places. These are forces that have power over us. In our day they could be institutions, such as nations, states, corporations, schools, churches, or even families. They could also be spiritual forces such as nationalism, the economy, education, religion, or even sin and death. Paul understood all of these were created good. Each has a proper function that is supposed to operate according to God’s will. However, if God’s divinity is not recognized, one of the principalities or powers takes his place and everything is knocked out of whack. They assume the status of the creator, operating as false gods who can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:31-39, Ephesians 3:7-13, Colossians 1: 15-20, 2: 8-19).

It’s in this context that Martin Luther claimed everyone has a god. It is simply that in which a person ultimately places his trust. In this light it is helpful to ponder what serves as false gods in our present society.

They are not necessarily evil things, but that to which people turn in the last resort. These are the false gods that can take over a person’s life. Sometimes people indicate them when they say things like “Health is everything,” “Knowledge is everything,” “Family is everything,” or “Money is everything.” If you have one of these, everything else falls into place.

False gods are also evident when people speak of something enabling them to do anything they want. Money has become a popular one, for modern people think if you have money, you can do anything you want.Technology is another. People presume it eventually will overcome all human limitations, so they will be able to do anything they want. The computer will give enough information that they will easily make all the right decisions. So they wait for the next technological innovation that will produce the jobs and money we all need.

Sometimes the nation assumes divine status, for example when people profess, “My country, right or wrong,” or when they talk about American exceptionalism giving us the right to do whatever we want in the world.

Celebrities also become false gods when we allowed them to do whatever they want. For example, celebrity preachers often preach their own idea about what God wants us to do, sometimes pretending the gospel is the way to prosperity and worldly success.

And, of course, power assumes the role of false god when it is pursued in order to be able to do whatever we want. The current debate about guns seems to have more to do with this than second amendment freedoms.

It seems accurate to say there all sorts of false gods out there, all tempting us to destroy the order of creation. That makes the first command the most basic of the ten. If we place God in authority, all else follows naturally. If we do not, all returns to chaos.

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