The First Commandment
Chapter 5 – The God We Worship
When God met with Moses at the burning bush, He was taking the first step in recalling the children of Israel from the paganism of Egypt. Just how far the polytheistic culture of the Egyptians had influenced the Israelites is clear from the question Moses asked in Exodus 3:13: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
Moses understood that to the Israelites, living in a culture in which every animal and every other manifestation of nature was considered divine, were likely to respond to him by saying, “God sent you? And which god would that be?” The name God gave, I AM THAT I AM, was at least in part intended to distinguish the One True God who Is from all the Egyptian gods, who were not. Israel was to be called to an older, purer religion – one in which the Creator stands alone above His creation.
The same truth would form the foundation upon which all the Ten Commandments would be based. When God spoke from Sinai, He began with these words: “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.” He was telling them something critical about worship: We may worship no one but God alone.
The First Commandment embodied a thorough rejection of ancient culture. Polytheism was of the essence of ancient society. Belief in a multiplicity of gods was so ingrained into the fallen soul of man that it seemed inconceivable to that the Israelites would not worship more than one god. Sometimes modern Christians are confused by the details of Old Testament paganism. Why did the Samaritans blend the worship of Jehovah with heathen practices? Why did Cyrus underwrite the construction of the Temple? The answer is that polytheists were natural pluralists. They never minded adding a new deity to the pantheon.
We Evangelicals tend to think of ourselves as living in a culture dominated by secular post-spiritualism. We hear all the time of the modern man who rejects all religion as superstition. Consequently we ignore the genuine threat of resurgent paganism. We need to carefully consider the spiritual overtones of multiculturalism. Are all faiths equally valid? Are there lessons to be learned from every spiritual tradition? Should we be excited when public figures are “persons of faith,” regardless of the faith they profess?
Pluralistic thinking is merely the modern manifestation of the pagan mind. Like the ancients, moderns want to benefit from every spiritual tradition. They find that the great advantage of this is that they need not submit to any one tradition! Our world is not so different from the ancient world, after all.
It is easy for the church to be caught up in the spirit of the age. We want the respect of other “spiritual” persons. We can be tempted to study other faiths, not for apologetic purposes as to discern what valuable truths they hold. I have even heard of a formerly evangelical church bringing in a Native American shaman to teach the congregation how to “get in touch” with the spirits of their ancestors. What should be our response?
The critical phrase in the First Commandment is “before me.” It is not a phrase intended to limit the commandment, but to limit the worshiper. It does not indicate the priority of one god over others, but the position of the man who will worship God. He must recognize that he lives life “before God” or in His presenvce.
One of the functions of worship is to regularly remind the child of God that life is indeed lived “before God.” Left to ourselves, we forget this. God is omnipresent, but He is not omni-manifest. Most of the time, we do not actively reflect on His presence. Worship is different, for in it God manifests Himself through His Word. During that hour He cannot be ignored. Living “before God” begins in worship. Through worship we remind ourselves that He is our God, that He sees all that we do, and that He demands our whole, entire worship for Himself. The intent of worship is that we leave remembering that fact, and that we retain that awareness through our week.
Since worship reminds us of the omnipresence of God, it ought to form the bedrock of a vital commitment to Him. If we properly understand worship as an entrance into the manifest presence of God, and if we properly understand the God we worship, we will be horrified at the thought of dragging the idols of the world in with us. All thought of other truths and other paths to truth will be banished before the awesome holiness of the God of Truth.
Worship, then, becomes an island of monotheistic sanity in a pluralistically mad world. The Christian is assaulted on every side by interfaith nonsense which offends both God and reason. His time in worship reminds him that there is only one God, only one truth, and only one path to truth. Whatever inroads the polytheistic culture has made into his mind are blasted apart and stopped up. Absolute commitment to the only God – the God of the Bible – should be the result of every worship service. The worshiper should leave recommitted to the truth that life is lived before God, and that he must therefore have no other gods.
It is a tragedy when worship fails to accomplish this. Churches that import “wisdom” from other faiths into worship are working against the gospel, not for it. They are leading worshipers away from rigorous monotheism, not into it. When we fail to honor One God – and One God only – in worship, where His presence is manifest, how will we do so in day-to-day life, where His presence is often hidden? Rather, we should strive for worship that presents the biblical God in all His glory and majesty. When we catch a glimpse of that God we know that He is without a rival. No other can stand a comparison.