Commandment #1: Religion vs. Relationship

The 10 Commandments
April 23, 2012
Commandment #2: No Idols!
May 8, 2012

Have you ever visited a house of worship of a non-Christian faith? When I was a child growing up in New York City, our family often went out to dinner in Chinatown in Manhattan.  I’m guessing I was about 9, when on one of our many trips to Chinatown, my parents took my twin brother and I into a Buddhist temple. “It’s good for you to experience the culture other people, and religions are a big part of other cultures,” said my mom. I wasn’t convinced. I remember being terrified. It was so radically different from my home church of St. Charles.   I don’t remember it being big…a storefront location, perhaps. But it was packed with Chinese worshippers. It was noisy, with unusual smells. There were beautiful tapestries and decorations, and a huge statue of Buddha.  That  scared me. I was often in fear of my God. Now I was being watched by another!  I wanted out!

I am not afraid of Buddhist temples anymore, nor am I in fear of my God, my savior. But I have a good understanding of why God addressed the issue of other gods in his 1st commandment.

When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, they were amidst a people that practiced a polytheistic religion. Knowing that, it makes sense that the first commandment God gave them addressed this influence. In Exodus 20:2-3, it says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  “You shall have no other gods before me.” He was instructing them to leave behind the polytheistic religion of their captors.

Today, many Sunday school teachers, pastors and bible study teachers will say that this refers to worshipping things that are not God. It’s no secret that our society worships a lot of other gods. They are gods that promise fulfillment but fail to deliver. The gods of money, fame, beauty, popularity, success, peace, pleasure, escape, comfort, security, happiness…all of them promise satisfaction, but all fall miserably short of the promise. Certainly, as Christians, we are not to worship those other false gods.

This commandment goes deeper than that. This commandment sets the stage for all the rest. In fact, I wonder if the rest of them are significant without this first one. Is that heresy? I don’t know.  Because it’s in THIS commandment that God clearly defines the relationship between Him and the Israelites. Let’s take the verses apart to pull out 4 significant thoughts.

  1. I am the LORD: The word for LORD here is “Jehovah”. It’s translated as “self-existing one.” This name is the most frequently used name of God in the Old Testament, found more than 6800 times.  God has no beginning or end. He is the creator, and all of creation came from his being. As the self-existing one, He is the all-sufficient one as well. From Him, we have all we need. He meets us where we are, and brings to us his complete and inexhaustible supply of blessing and provision.  He said this short 4 word phrase to set the stage for Moses, to remind him that no matter what pit of despair the Israelites were in, God was not only aware of it, but completely able to deal with it.
  2. Your God:  The pronoun YOUR is significant because it emphasizes the RELATIONSHIP between God and his people the Israelites. This is an intimate, close and significant relationship. God is speaking to his beloved people, and it shows his heart of love for them. He wants them to know that the establishment of relationship preceeds the requirement of obedience.
  3. Who brought you out of Egypt: God affirms and reminds the Israelites of how he freed them from captivity. Not only did he establish relationship with them, but he worked great miracles on their behalf. He brought them out to be separated, to be consecrated to himself, to be removed from the culture where they had been imprisoned for centuries. Their freedom was due to HIS intervention. No other god did it for them.
  4. You shall have no other gods before me: This is where God lays out his requirement. The Egyptian polytheistic religion was filled with mystical rituals, beautiful temples housing hundreds of gods, and visually impressive statues. In contrast, the Isralites had a simple religion; they worshipped one God, who was fairly quiet, and completely invisible. I can only assume that the adorned and affluent culture of the Egyptian religion was magnetic to the Hebrews. No doubt some of the Hebrews were influenced by and drawn to such a magnificent culture. But God was adamant! There would be NO OTHER god before him. Relationship with him required sole worship to him.

What’s the application for us today? It’s essentially the same as for the Hebrews. God alone saves. God alone delivers. Establishing a relationship with Jesus as your savior and Lord is the single most significant thing you can do in your lifetime. The relationship precedes the obedience. Obedience to the commandments is both impossible and insignificant without the relationship with God.

Many people may think they have a relationship with God, but is it a saving relationship? Does God truly call himself “your God?” Do you have that personal relationship?

If you do, is God at the center of your life? Visualize your life like a wheel that had a central hub and radiating spokes. The central hub is where all the spokes begin, and represents the controlling being of your life. The spokes represent the many areas of your life, such as your job, your relationships, your hobbies, your thoughts. Where is God on the wheel? Is he at the hub, the center, affecting and directing every aspect of your life? Or is he just one of the spokes, with no influence on any of the other spokes? Are YOU at the hub, directing and controlling? Change that! Put God where He deserves to be.

This commandment is key for us to understand that Christianity is not a religion about God, but a relationship with God. That’s why it’s the first one. And that’s why it sets the stage for the rest. The rest of the commandments make sense only when the first one is settled.

Is it settled for you?

Maureen Zappala
Maureen Zappala
Maureen is the founder of High Altitude Strategies. She’s an ex-NASA propulsion engineer, turned professional speaker and author. She’s a semi-regular contributor to the monthly Toastmaster magazine. And paradoxically, is co-writing a book about Ohio State Football history, (despite being a graduate of U of Notre Dame). Go Bucks. Go Irish. Go figure.

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