We often look at God’s 10 Commandments as those things which we are or are not to do, and they certainly speak clearly in that way. They are more though. In this series of articles, we’ll look at these Commandments functioning like a fence. A fence protects valuable gifts from being harmed. A fence prohibits what’s inside from becoming abused or lost into the abyss of all that exists outside its boundaries. A fence promotes the value of that which exists within.
Using this three-fold function of a fence, we’ll begin taking a look at God’s familiar 10 Commandments.
A fence protects valuable gifts from being harmed.
“You shall have no other gods.” This is the first (and greatest) commandment, and its meaning should be rather clear. In the Small Catechism, we answer the question, “What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” When this commandment was spoken by God on Mt. Sinai, he further instructed the Israelites not to create any idols, no images of things that they would worship instead of him. He explained, “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). “Jealous,” he calls himself. To some, this might seem petty. Is God so insecure that he puts these restrictions on our behavior and our affections like a jealous boyfriend?
It’s too bad that “jealous” has taken on such a negative connotation. When God says he’s a “jealous God,” he is rather like a jealous husband—but not in any abusive way. In a marriage, husband and wife are devoted to one another, exclusive of all others. If the wife pursues an affair with someone else, the husband is right to be jealous, both for himself because the vow made to him has been broken, and for his wife because she is bringing herself harm by breaking the vow, making herself a liar and an adulteress (who can trust her now?).
God, who defines marriage, is jealous when people serve gods other than him. They are forsaking him who is alone the true God, and they are damning themselves by rejecting him. We know from his Word that he “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). He therefore puts this commandment in place to protect us—there is no salvation, no truth in other so-called gods. They are all “mute idols” who only lead to death (1 Corinthians 12:2). It is in confessing Christ Jesus that salvation is ours—he alone is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). With the Father and the Holy Spirit, he alone is true God. He has made himself our Bridegroom, and we are his Bride, the Church. If we are truly his Bride, then we receive the great blessings that belong to him.
St. Paul describes what Christ has done for the Church: he “loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
It is in the interests of safeguarding this gift for us that God has given this command. He has won something so surpassingly great as Jesus’ own holiness and purity and righteousness and eternal life, and it is only ours if we remain in faith to him and him alone. Of course, this is not something that we can do, for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Jesus has not only sent the Holy Spirit in order to create this faith in our hearts, but throughout his perfect life, in obedience to the whole Law, he has kept even this commandment.
As a boy, Jesus kept this commandment—for while his parents thought him lost, he told them, “I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49). As both youth and adult, Jesus taught the truth of God’s Word in the temple and synagogues regularly, leading the people to the true God. When the Devil tempted him to bow down to him, Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’” (Luke 4:8). When Jesus faced his ultimate suffering and death, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
We are not so ready to let the true God be our god, to pray that his will be done, even if it means that ours is not. But through Jesus’ perfect obedience to his Father, the true God, the jealous God, he created a clean record, and through his innocent death in our place, he removed the punishment for our idolatry, our rejection of the true God. Now we are washed clean through his Baptism in the name of that Triune God, we are given his perfect body and sacrificial blood through the Supper, and we are declared righteous by his Word—this is the vow of our Bridegroom, our God. His true Word declares, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
We must admit that we fail repeatedly, continuously, to keep this most important of the commandments—from which all other commandments come—yet in Jesus this commandment has been perfectly kept, and his perfect record is counted as ours. In this, God is faithful, and therefore, being so jealous over us, he is faithful also to keep his vow to give us eternal life and the blessed joys of his heavenly mansions.
The First Commandment
You shall have no other gods.
What does this mean?
We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.
Rev. Michael Lilienthal
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Albert Lea, MN