Are the Bible’s Ten Commandments actual rules, or are they more like guidelines? Increasingly, people are questioning long-held beliefs about right and wrong. It’s tempting to wonder if the Ten Commandments, written thousands of years ago, still have relevance for us today. We can find ethical codes in other ancient religions and cultures, including the Law of Tehut, the code of Ur-Nammu, and the Code of Hammurabi. What is different about the commandments God gave to the ancient nation of Israel, and how do they point us to the one true God today?
Let’s start with the first commandment:
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I 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.” (Exod. 20:1–3)
In his book The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life, author J. Douma provides us with three valuable insights into why God gives us the first commandment.
1. It requires choosing to love God faithfully.
Just like when a husband and wife exchange vows in a marriage ceremony to belong exclusively to each other, the first commandment requires us to love God faithfully. God will not share the devotion that belongs to him alone with an idol of any kind.
2. It requires an undivided heart.
The first commandment requires us to love and serve God wholeheartedly. This doesn’t mean that we will never sin. Both Noah and David are described as having wholehearted devotion to God (Gen. 6:9; 1 Kings 9:4). Yet, both of these men were also sinful. The kind of devotion God commands us to have for him can be seen in the conversation between Jesus and the rich young ruler. Jesus confronted the young ruler with the reality that his love for money divided his heart and kept him from having complete devotion to God. Jesus wants our whole heart, not just a part of it.
3. It liberates us from bondage to false gods.
In Exodus 20:2, God reminds the Israelites that he freed them from their enslavement to Egypt. Similarly, obeying the first commandment keeps us free from bondage to false gods that can never love us, rescue us, or give us any true blessings. We think more money, a better job, a nicer spouse, or more acclaim will make us happy, but we don’t have to look very far to find people who have some or all of these things and are miserable.
Ways in which we break the first commandment: We break the first commandment when we give love to anything in creation that rightly belongs to God. We can make many creaturely things in our lives an idol: our spouse, children, possessions, etc. People should never worship any created thing. Our worship belongs to God alone.
Ways in which Jesus obeyed the first commandment: Jesus never sinned (2 Cor. 5:21). He never put anything above his love for the Father (John 14:31). When tempted by the devil in the desert, Jesus responded with complete love and devotion to God alone (Matt. 4:1–11). When he could have prevented his own arrest and crucifixion, Jesus submitted wholly to his Father’s will (Luke 22:42). Jesus always loved God perfectly (John 15:10).
The first commandment is the foundation for all the other commandments. Jesus obeyed the first commandment on our behalf, going all the way to the cross because of his love for the Father. Because of his faithfulness, we can be credited with Jesus’ righteousness through faith in him alone by God’s grace.