2. Only the One God

Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments:   2. Only the One God

Ex 20:3   You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me.

In the first of these meditations we emphasised the need to observe the historical context when approaching these laws. That is as important with this verse as it was with the previous two verses. The law is simple and straight forward: God says, “I am God, there is only one of me, so don’t worship anyone or anything else.”

Bear in mind Israel had only recently left that fear-driven, superstitious nation, Egypt, which we are told had over 2.000 gods. Many had similar characteristics and appeared all over the country but with different names.  Birds, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, frogs, cattle, dogs, cats and other domesticated animals were considered to be the living images of a particular god or goddess. One historian declares, ‘All parts of life were covered and there were gods for beer, plants, digestion, the high seas, female sexuality, gardens, partying etc.’

The best known gods of Egypt we may have heard of – Ra, the god of the Sun, the most important god, lord of all the gods. He was usually shown in human form with a falcon head, crowned with the sun disc encircled by the a sacred cobra – judge of the dead, and father of Horus, god of the sky (the Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was the ‘living Horus’) – Tefnut, goddess of  the rain – Anubis, who guided the dead to the next life via the court of Osiris in the Underworld – Sobek, god of Nile who had the head of a crocodile, and many others (followers of ‘The Mummy’ films will know some of these names)

In Canaan, gods we come across in the Bible were Asherah, the walker of the sea, a mother goddess,  Baal, god of fertility, Dagon, god of crop fertility, Molech, god of fire, and there were also many, many others. A simple Google search reveals that virtually every nation had ‘gods’.

Later in history we may be more familiar with the Greek gods – Zeus,. god of the Sky – Hera  goddess of marriage, mothers and families – Poseidon, god of the Sea – and  so on.  Following them, the Romans with their gods, mostly the same but with changed names, for example, Zeus, the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and god of the sky and thunder, Pallas Athena, is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, Mars was the god of war, Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation, and so on.

A study of such gods shows us four things:

  • First there were lots of them! In fact there were gods for any and every situation or feature of the world.
  • Second, they created or maybe were the result of superstitious fear, the insecurity of living in a changing, uncertain world.
  • Third, they were never benign, it seems; they all required some form of appeasement.
  • Fourth, when these gods took human form or were thought of as being in human form, they also took on human foibles and struggled and fought with one another and did not have humanities best interests at heart!

And then God reveals Himself, first to the Patriarchs of what became Israel, and then to Moses and then to all of Israel. There are suggestions that He had already revealed himself to others. Studies of ancient Chinese suggest that they knew of this creator God who had the same characteristics as revealed to Israel.  In Genesis, when Abram had just rescued Lot, we find the king of Jerusalem came to him: Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” (Gen 14:18-20) Note that he was a “priest of God Most High” who also describes God as “Creator of heaven and earth”.  There is clearly prior revelation here about the Lord.

Now, perhaps, we can see why the first of these ten commands is so important. They bring us a requirement, that is supported by all the knowledge of Him that we pick up in the Bible, that He is one, He is the Creator of all of existence, He is thus all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise and He is eternal  These are some of the minimums that come through in the Bible about Him. It also declares that He is love, He is good, He is holy, and He is perfect. In other words He is utterly different from any of these other ‘gods’ we have been considering.

The call to follow Him alone is, surprisingly and contrary to the crusading atheists claims, a claim to be free of superstition and a call to come to one who will bring, love and goodness and security. For Moses and his people they already knew something of Him as revealed through His dealings with the Patriarchs and now His deliverance of them from Egypt. He was a God who appeared to want to be friendly, a God who had the power to deal with enemies on one hand, and bless His friends on the other.

Everything we know of these other ‘gods’ makes us want to shy away from them and their demands and the superstitious fear-filled life, and everything we come to know of Him says here is one who we would be foolish to reject. It is only that self-centred and godless propensity that we all have which the Bible calls Sin, that makes us suspicious and fearful.

It also makes us want to stand on our own two feet and foolishly think we can cope in life without Him, hence the popular ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’ attitude that is the popular expression of the rebellious aspect of Sin. In the folly of Sin we cannot believe that this God who claims to be the one and only God is loving and good and desires the best for us, but that, as we say, is the folly of Sin. The call to “have no other gods beside me,” is in one way a common sense call in accord with reality because there is NO other God, merely the imaginations of superstitious fear. Away with it!

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16. I am not God

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  16. I am not God

Jn 1:19,20    Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”

I have just been struck by the clarity of the two Johns, John the Baptist and John the Gospel writer. It is probable that John the writer included these verses to speak against a cult that existed at the time when he wrote near the end of that first century AD, a cult that declared that John the Baptist was the Messiah. John the writer is quite clear  as he writes about the other John, that he openly declared that he was NOT the expected Messiah.  Indeed he recounts the conversation he had with priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to find out who he was: They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” (v.21) As others have commented, I like the way his answers get more brief as he goes on. Instead of seeking to explain more and more, having made his simple declarations, he leaves it at that. But they persist.

“Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (v.22)  Come on, they say, you must give us some answer! “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, `Make straight the way for the Lord.’ “ (v.23) Do you see what I meant about the two Johns. John the writer understands exactly who the Baptist is quoting and so John, further amplifying his previous denials, merely says in our words, I  am not him. The best I can say is that I am one seeking to prepare his way to make it easier for him to come but, no, I am not him!

Now you may wonder why I have included this passage is a series of gems from the Bible. I do so because of the crisp clarity with which John recounts what happens and the implied significance that we can take from it.

The first of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall have no other gods besides me.” (Ex 20:3) It is based on the truth that there is only one God. When you look at our modern world we tend to make little gods of celebrities. Merely because they act well or sing well or play football well, we pay them an excessive amount of money and they live expensive lives that seem so high and lofty and above ours, that we tend to elevate that as superstars, almost little gods. Super-heroes have become a thing, beings with powers greater than we have and we sometimes look at people and almost elevate them to this level. The media loves championing clever people who come up with silly thoughts about why God doesn’t exist and why Christianity is make believe and we, foolishly, cower before these giants like Israel cowered before Goliath. They are little gods and we elevate them to great heights.

The story of John the Baptist, as he prepares the way for the coming of Jesus says two things about Jesus: First, I am not the Messiah from heaven; second, he is! John knew his place, he knew his calling and therefore his role and it was to be no more than a messenger who said, “Get yourselves ready to meet God.”  It therefore comes as a reminder to us that we are not God, we cannot do what God does beyond that which He gives us to do. We can speak words but beyond that we cannot change people. Only He can do that. We can plan our lives in a limited way but we will ultimately be limited by circumstances because have neither the wisdom, the knowledge, the strength, nor the power to overcome the obstacles that crop up in life – ill health, accidents, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, and so on. Without God we are prey to these things. But He is God and He is not affected by such things for His knowledge is unlimited, His wisdom is unlimited, His strength and His power is unlimited. We are not God but He is.

When it comes to Jesus, there is no competition. Sometimes we are foolish enough to believe we can be the answer to people’s problems, but we can’t, only Jesus can. He is God and so He has the knowledge, wisdom, strength, power and authority to bring changes to people’s lives as they give him access. You may not think this is a ‘gem’ in the Word, but it is because it is a fundamental and basic truth and as far as we are concerned all else hinges on it. No, says John, I am not the Christ, just his messenger. No, we must say, I am not the Christ, just his messenger. You want life changing? You must talk to him. That’s his business. I can’t deal with your sins but he died on the Cross to deal with them, so you must go and talk to him about them and receive his forgiveness.

Perhaps some of us need to look in mirror and say to ourselves every morning, “I am not God. I cannot save my family, only Jesus can. I can tell them about him, I can pray for them and I can seek to be an example for them but beyond that I cannot change them. I cannot change my husband (or wife), I cannot change by employer, I cannot change…(?) but I can tell them about him, I can pray for them and I can seek to be an example for them. I am aware and thankful for the gifts and abilities that God has given me but I still need Him to lead, guide and inspire me and show me the way to go and who to speak to and what to do. He is God. I am not.”  This passage with the two Johns is like a beam of light that shines on us. May we heed it.

2. No Other

Lessons from the Law: No.2 : No Other God

Ex 20:1-3 And God spoke all these words: “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 (besides)  me.

Starting from basics, if there is a God, how would your describe Him? The simplest definition is usually given as The Supreme Being. If there is a God He has to be greater than anyone or anything else. The Romans and Greeks had ‘gods’ but they were simply super-beings with human foibles, who frequently seemed to squabble. No, if there is going to be a God He has to be One Supreme Being. Now the only logical alternative is that there is no such being and that, of course, is the position taken by atheists, yet the Bible is built on the consistent belief throughout that there is this One Supreme Being who revealed Himself to individuals and then to what became the nation of Israel, and finally through His Son, Jesus Christ. The Christian concept of the Trinity does not mean three Gods but simply three expressions of the One. Moreover, while we are at it, the God of the Old Testament is exactly the same as the God of the New Testament.

I suspect there are two reasons why atheists don’t like the concept of God. The first is that their sinful nature (as the Bible describes it) doesn’t like the thought of being answerable to someone seriously superior to them and, second, they don’t bother to really read the whole Bible and catch the descriptions of this One Supreme Being. For example, consider this early description of God, “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Ex 34:6,7) I recently asked a group of seekers that if this was a true description of God (and it is consistently shown throughout the Bible) how would they feel about Him, and they all replied, good, safe and secure!

But here in this first of the Ten Commandments we find,You shall have no other gods before (besides) me.” It is a call by God for us to have a uniqueness of thinking about Him, to hold to the belief in just One Supreme Being and not to let anyone or anything else compete for our affections. Indeed it is a call that is repeated in various forms again and again, for example, “Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.” (Ex 23:13) Furthermore when the Lord spoke about Israel taking the Promised Land He declared, “My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water.” (Ex 23:23-26) The call was to completely wipe out all signs of idol worship and to worship Him the One Supreme Being, the “I AM” or the Eternal One.

Again He warned, “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.” (Ex 23:32,33). The reason for this is thus made clear: if you leave them, the superstitious side of you will turn to these things of wood and you will start doing the things that their ‘followers’ do, like sacrificing your children for example. In his closing words in Deuteronomy, Moses warned, “And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars–all the heavenly array–do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.” (Deut 4:19). In other words, don’t become like the Egyptians, for instance, who worship the elements in their fearful superstition. Then came a further warning: “Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God” (Deut 6:13-15) It is superstitious nonsense to fear idols made by the hands of men, but it is right and wise to have an awesome respect for the One Supreme Being who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise. Moses’ father-in-law understood reality: “Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. He said, “Praise be to the LORD, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” (Ex 18:9-11)

In the various plagues God challenged the superstition of the Egyptians: I will plague your whole country with frogs”. (Ex 8:2) The frog (or toad) was deified in the goddess Heqt, who assisted women in childbirth. “The hand of the LORD….. terrible plague on your livestock.” (Ex 9:3) The Egyptians worshiped many animals and animal-headed deities, including the bull-gods Apis and Mnevis, the cow-god Hathor and the ram-god Khnum. “Darkness will spread over Egypt.” (Ex 10:21) The darkness was an insult to the sun-god Ra (or Re), one of the chief deities of Egypt.

Why this first commandment? Because this is the truth: there is only One Supreme all-powerful, all-wise, all-knowing Being and all else is superstition which leads people to do terrible things, as we’ll see even more or we go on in these studies. The crucial issue here is that people follow in their lives, the ways of their God or gods. History shows that followers of ‘gods’ do terrible things. Beyond cleansing the Promised Land of such things, there is simply order and blessing and goodness seen accompanying the worship of the One Supreme Being. We will see more of what He is like as we work our way through the Law and, I hope, agree that any alternative is really unthinkable to the thinking person.