Ten Commandments 2 – The First Commandment
Ethics from God
In the last section we discovered that the scientific study of what the scriptures principally teach is summarized in two terms, dogmatics and ethics. Dogmatics refers to the study of beliefs to be held as presented in the scriptures. Ethics refers to the study of duty. We also explored the difficulties one has today in making ethical determinations using scripture as the source for truth and highest authority. We have to remember that it is what scripture says on the subject, not what man feels, wants, hopes to be true about moral reality.
After that overview we must think about another problem matter for the ethicist, namely that is the noetic effects of sin. Noetic refers to the mind of the human being. The noetic effects of sin means that when Adam and Eve sinned, they fell into a state of rebellion. The mind was bent toward rebellion, exchanged the truth for a lie, and continues to affirm that lie with unrighteous acts. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree in Genesis 3, and God gave them over to their sin. At the same time when Adam and Eve hardened their hearts to God’s true and authoritative word, God turned them over to their sin as the punishment which would fit the crime. Now every man and woman is affected by this state into which Adam and Eve fell. All of mankind is rebellious in the intellect, will, and emotions against the true word of God. All of mankind exchanges the truth for a lie. All of mankind supports their lie authority by acts of unrighteousness.
The noetic effects of sin overpower mankind’s ability to see the revealation of God clearly. God revealed himself external to mankind in the creation. His eternal power, wisdom, order, moral nature and unity within diversity show through the things he made. He also made himself known within mankind by the image of God. The image of God has to do with the Spiritual nature of man. Humans are moral, reasonable, religious, interpersonal, and capable of the service of God with formal religious practice and with taking dominion over the earth. God also revealed himself in the curse which he placed upon the world after the fall of man. Tragedies of famine, flood, fire, earthquake, disease, and all manner of calamity are upon the world because God gave the curse as a foretaste for man of the punishment in the age to come. Even though mankind has all three of these witnesses to the reality and rightful authority God over all humanity, humanity still rejects the truth for the lie.
The answer to human rebellion is two-fold, regeneration and scripture. The internal principle of knowing God is that the Holy Spirit renews the mind and soul in a secret invisible conversion through the offer of the Gospel of grace. The image of God becomes born again to new life in Jesus, and is set free from the bondage to sin. The external principle is scripture. Even if the mind is renewed by the Holy Spirit’s sovereign work, a second old nature still remains. Paul described this internal civil war in Romans 7, where he describes how the principle of death, sin, the old man, old nature, remains until the day we die. Human minds are not only in need of the new nature in rebirth, but also a daily renewal by the word of God.
Scripture is the authoritative standard for true revelation of what God requires of man for belief and duty. During the protestant reformation, John Calvin, the French reformed in Geneva, was fond of explaining the scriptures as spectacles which allowed us to see the world clearly through our rebellious intellectual vision. Scripture is special superior to the general testimony to the existence of God because it is inspired by God, and therefore true, authoritative as God’s very word, and because it is verbal revelation- which is far superior to nonverbal revelation found in the creation.
Ethics toward God
Man knows there is a moral God revealed from external and internal sources, though ultimately from God. Nevertheless, one may be tempted to think of morality as simply something that is. Modernists do this with the laws of nature explored by the hard sciences. They assume that these things are ultimate reality. When asked why there is such a thing as order in the universe, modernists simply take it for granted. This is how they approach moral truth as well. For the modernist, ethics is the study of what is in the world, but without the presupposition of the creator who made this world morally intelligible.
The problem with this is that morality which does not connect the creature with the creator is at worst narcissistically self-absorbed, and at best anthropologically centered. The two goals of the modern ethicist is the individual self or the collective self. These are flawed accounts of reality because they make all moral good ultimately self-love, rather than genuine love for others. Self-love breaks down quickly. First, self-love is a poor motive for doing right by another. On a deeper level, if the goal of ethics is to love the individual self, or the collective self, it will be easy to take the step to do wrong against others. Man needs a reference outside of self to which we may direct our love and duty. That is the reality into which the first commandment comes.
Here is the reality in which we live: God created humanity to serve him with our whole person in religious worship and taking vocational dominion over the earth, but man sinned and rebelled against God and fell into a state of sin and misery, but God being rich in mercy renewed elect humanity to- or even above- that first creation in Christ. God is the center of morality. All moral duty of love ought to be centered on God. Ethics takes up the goal of doing one’s duty unto God. At a most basic level, this is the meaning and context of the first commandment. When God said, “Have no other God’s before me” He gave the most basic explanation of ethical reasoning. Ethics are from God and therefore toward God.
The First Commandment
The first commandment comes as a consequence of spiritual liberation from the old master of sin unto the new master of the Lord. There are several clues to this in the text. Not only does the first commandment of Exodus 20:3 come directly after the statement of liberation in verse 2, but God also uses his covenant name. He said, “I am the Lord your God,” using the name of the great I AM to identify himself as groom to the bride, covenant Lord and master to the servant people whom he liberated from Egypt. God used this name in Exodus 3 to confirm his relationship to Israel in bondage in Egypt. Moses asked how the elders of the people would know that God sent him, and God gave this name, I AM, as the confirmation. The miraculous signs would prove that God was with Moses, but the name did more than prove by evidence that God was with Moses. In the name I AM God communicated his covenant relationship of grace established with Abraham, Isaak, and Jacob. The Lord is their (note the possessive pronoun) God.
The first commandment is not only a command in the situation in life in which we find humanity as sinner who must be renewed to true morality, but it is a call to God-wardness. God is the true motive of all ethics. He is the true end goal of all ethics. He is the revealer and creator of ethics. He liberated his people in the Gospel to renew ethics.
Another way to think about this Godwardness is through the lens of the word repentance. There are two words used in the New Testament which refer to related but different things, repentance and remorse. Remorse is part of repentance, but repentance goes beyond emotional remorse to Godward mindedness. The Greek term metameleia refers to remorse, and at root means something like an after-feeling. This guilty after feeling was what led Judas to bring the coins for the price of innocent bloodshed into the temple and throw them at the corrupt treasury. Judas, in the Greek, was remorseful, but he was not repentant. Repentance is a salvation gift, not a natural after-feeling. All of humanity, regenerate or not, feels remorse. It is not necessarily a sign of having been reborn. On the other hand, repentance is a Godward move of the mind. In a crudely literal way it means after-though or a change of mind. The use of the word in the Old and New Testaments really means to turn one’s mind to the service of God as a saving grace form God. The expanded form of the word repentance in the mind of the Apostolic church was termed “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Repentance is a first move to true ethics because it centers the mind on the true base of all ethics, God who is one’s very own God, liberator, and justifier.
There is special information in some of the commandments which focus our attention on the context and true meaning of them. For example, we already considered the way the sabbath commandment has various reasons in chapter one. The special information for the first commandment reveals God’s claim of exclusive service in the words “before me.” Nothing else can be placed above God in importance, as a moral end goal, as a moral motive. God alone is the standard, goal, and frame of reference for the creature. We are to be Godward.
The two great commandments make sense of this. In Matthew 22, an expert in the Law of Moses asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Jesus answered,
37 And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Mat 22:37-40 NAU)
Our Lord showed that these two commandments are the basic categories of the moral law. They also expound the meaning of the first commandment. For one to love God, he or she must love neighbor. God commands love to neighbor, therefore one who loves his or her neighbor is loving God. This meaning of the text is clearer in the Greek. When verse 39 said, “The second is like it,” the Greek means just like it. Exactly the same as it. In other words, Jesus is saying that these are two sides of the same moral law of the first commandment.
This shows us several important principles of interpretation. First, the letter of the law is not the only law in question. Each commandment is a moral category, under which there is a deeper and more complex meaning. If one thing is commanded, the opposite is rejected. If love for God is commended, having love for something higher than God is rejected. Second, Jesus shows that the Old Testament was aware of this reality in his quotations of two passages which relate on the same subject. If the student of biblical ethics is unsure of the meaning of one text, the highest authority and clearest interpretation must come from passages dealing with the same subject matter. These principles help us interpret all the commandments.
Here we learn if one loves God by loving others, then that love for others must be Godward love, and not anthropocentric. So much of what passes for morality today is simply an affirmation of bad behavior. The world affirms the lie, remember. The old nature suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. For example, consider the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution is often affirmed by terms of equality, love, and justice. These terms are taken up in the Bible, but the Biblical frame of reference is not to simply affirm what people do with their bodies in rebellion to God. The biblical teaching is to serve God with the body, even sexually, in the ways he prescribes for human duty.
The law is complicated. For example when we break any commandment we have already broken the first, and wil see how we also break others simultaneously. The puritans were fond of showing how when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden they broke the whole Decalogue. What we gather from this initial look at the first commandment is that we are to be Godward in our ethics, and that these commandments are the major categories under which we may study more precisely the subcategories of ethical inquiry.