In Competition With GodErwin W. Lutzer | March 2, 1986
Selected highlights from this sermon
“Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” This commandment should make sense to us, because God, by His very nature, is owed exclusive attention. Yet we continue to rebel against Him by manufacturing our own gods with our hands, minds, and even our hearts.
Every person has a god. The question is: who do you serve?
Back in the summer of 1968 I had the privilege of studying in Israel and we went to Lebanon. In those days it was possible to be in Lebanon without any danger. I’m not sure that that’s possible today but it was back then. And when we were in Lebanon we were at a place called Baalbek. It’s about 20 miles inland, perhaps 20 or 25 miles from Beirut, and there are literally acres and acres of ruins there of ancient temples and shrines honoring Baal, the god Baal.
So when we got to the end of the tour the tour guide said, “Now you have to come around this corner because when you do you’ll get to see the god. And of course, we were delighted that we could do that because it would have been disappointing to go that far without seeing Baal. And so he was there, and he was somewhat smaller than I expected him to be. He was there staring at us. He was about only three feet tall, chiseled out of solid rock, and perhaps three or four thousand years old, but that was the god Baal.
Now when we talk about idolatry in today’s society, of course, we think to ourselves that nothing seems to be farther removed from us in this enlightened culture than idolatry. Who in the world today in western civilization would bow down to this piece of stone, Baal? But I want to remind you first of all that there is a lot of idolatry in the world. In fact, in India there are 330 million gods, and in other cultures they are rife with idolatry. And perhaps before this message is over we shall see that there is some idolatry in this country too, though perhaps of a different nature.
The first commandment that the Lord gave is in Exodus 20:3, and you can turn to that passage if you wish that the Spirit of God might brand upon your memories this great and profound statement by God when he says to the people of his day, “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Why did God make this statement? Is it because God feels insecure? Is it because God doesn’t like rivalry? Is it because he thinks that some of the other gods will make him look bad? Is he afraid of the competition? Why does he say, “Thou shall have no other gods before me”? Well I think there are several reasons why God said that and I want to give you some.
The first reason that he said, “Thou shall have no other gods before me” is because of the nature of God, the nature of the true God. God has exclusivity. He is an exclusive God because you see God has what philosophers call self-existence. He has within his own being the cause of his own existence. You know, all other things are dependent upon the cause-effect sequence. For example, it is unthinkable to us that anything could ever arrive out of nothing. Everything in our way of thinking needs a cause. In fact, one of the arguments that Christians give against evolution is that it is absolutely preposterous to suggest that the universe could somehow come from nothing. Out of nothing, nothing comes.
But in the case of God we are not saying that of course God came from nothing, but we are saying that God has always existed and never had a beginning and therefore he exists without a cause, or at least he is self-caused. Don’t think about that too long because if you do you might need more help than we are equipped to give you here at the church. I mean if there’s anything that just boggles my mind I say, “Lord, I’ll think about it from time to time but not too long.” It is a fact that God has always existed and is not dependent upon any prior cause for his existence. He always was. The Lord says to Moses, “I am that I am.” He is the self-existent one. “I exist because I exist.”
Now, friend, the moment you say that, you have to say something else in the very same breath, and that is you have to say that God therefore has intrinsic worth. He has intrinsic existence and is dependent on no one for his being. Therefore he has within his own person intrinsic value and worth.
You say, “Well, Pastor, all of us are worth something, aren’t we? We have also value. We hear today much about the value of personhood.” Yes, but my friend, our value is derived. We are valuable because we were created in the image of God. God confers our value upon us. It is not inherent to us. It is God-granted, and that’s where our value comes from.
Now it is because of this distinction that there are two things that are sin for us that are not at all sin to God. One, for example, is jealousy. Why is envy or jealousy wrong for us? It’s because we then desire something that we are holding to ourselves and saying that we have the right, as if to say it is somehow our inherent right. We deserve this and other people deserve that so we envy them because we somehow think that we should have what they have. That’s sin.
Everything that we have is a gift of God. Therefore we cannot be critical if God gives some people greater gifts than he gives us. And so jealousy for us is sin, but it is not sin for God. Did you notice the text? It says in verse 5, “You shall not worship them or serve them for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”
Dozens of times in the Bible God is spoken of as being jealous. You see God wants to have all of the attention that we should give him but he has the right to it because he is God. He does not pass off to some other being the cause of his own existence or worthiness. That’s why (as we find in Revelation 4:11) when we sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb, we will say, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.” He is worthy.
There’s another sin that we often talk about, and that is pride. Pride says, “I want attention. I want people to notice me. I want power. I want control.” The primary sin is pride. The fundamental basic sin of man is pride.
Is God prideful? Well it depends on how you define the word. We sometimes use the word in such a negative way that it would be wrong to ascribe it to God lest we ascribe sin to him. But does God want all the glory? Does he want all the honor? Does he want all the attention? The answer is yes. And he says, “I will not share my glory with another. I am an exclusive God. I am a God that desires your worship, your praise, and your adoration, and you shall love me with your heart, your mind, your strength, your soul and all that you are.
Why can God say that? It’s because he deserves it. He has within his own person all of the resources for his own existence. He is the cause of all things. He is the great and infinite and perfect spirit in whom all things have their source, support and end, and therefore he deserves it. That’s why he says, “Thou shall have no other gods beside me.”
You know what Paul said regarding pride? He said, “Who maketh thee to differ from another, or what has thou that thou hast not received? And if thou hast received it why does thou glory as if thou hast received it not?” That’s the sin of pride among us as human beings. We receive what God has given to us and we glory as if it is ours.
So God says first of all, “Thou shall have no other gods before me” because of the nature of God. God is an exclusive being. He alone is worthy of honor and praise.
Second, it’s because of the nature of man. Man is in rebellion against God. Do you remember Lucifer? The Bible says in Isaiah 14 and also in Ezekiel 28 that there was a being called Lucifer, and one day as one of God’s created creatures he said to himself, “I will be like the most high.” That’s what he said. He said, “I want to be God.” He is a creature. All of his strength is derived. It’s conferred but he wants to use the strength and the ability that God gave him to stand in opposition against God.
And then of course in the Garden of Eden do you remember what happened when Lucifer showed up unannounced to Adam and Eve? He said, “In the day that eat of this fruit you shall be as God” – not gods as it is in the King James Version. It’s the Greek word or the Hebrew word Elohim, which is a plural word for God, but it is Elohim. It is God. So he says to Adam and Eve, “You shall be as God, knowing good from evil.” My friend, ever since that time man has had a desire to be equal with God and to take over. That’s what the Bible says. “There is none that seeks after God. There is none that is righteous. No, not one!” A drop of Lucifer’s poison has fallen on every human heart and every human being wants to slither away from God. Every single one!
Now, this is why man is so prone to idolatry because you see, on the one hand he needs a god; he has been created by God. He has a vacuum in his heart that can only be filled by God. On the other hand, he does not want the Lord God Jehovah to rule over him. So he establishes within his mind some of his own gods that seem to be more controllable, more predictable and more in keeping with what he desires to do.
Julian Huxley, for example, on a television program some time ago, made this astounding statement. He said, “The reason that we accepted Darwinism without a lot of proof is because we did not want God to interfere with our sexual morays.” Well, that’s interesting! So that’s why Darwinism was accepted without a whole lot of proof. In other words, at root man was saying, “I will not have the Lord God to rule over me.” Now in the history of the Jewish nation you know they were so prone to idolatry, always turning to whatever god they happened to be with and whatever pagan god was there, because there’s something within man that says, “I want a god who I can control, and at least he is in harmony with some of my expectations and desires. As for the true God, we are not sure about him.”
There’s an amazing passage in Habakkuk 1. It says that the wicked Chalddeans go and take a net and catch fish. Actually it’s referring to the armies of other nations. But then it says that they burn incense to their nets. You see that’s the way man is. Instead of giving glory to God who gave you the ability to create the net, or thanking God for the fish that you are able to catch, it is just like man to stop short of giving glory to God, and even burn incense to his own nets. And so you have people today who are willing to thank the sweat of their own right hand. They are willing to thank the government. They are willing to thank their parents. They are willing to thank their employer. They are wiling to thank anybody except God from whom all blessings flow. It’s the nature of man to be in rebellion against God.
There’s a third reason why God gave this command and that is the nature of idolatry. The nature of God – he is exclusive. There is none other like him. The nature of man – he is in rebellion, seeking idols. But what is the nature of idolatry? The nature of idolatry is always to debase. First of all, idolatry is a tremendous insult to God.
Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 115 for just a moment. Here’s a discussion of idols and what they are like. Can you think of how insulting it is to God for people to pray to idols? It begins in Psalm 115:3 by talking about the true God. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Now notice what it says about the idols. Speaking of the heathen it says, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.” (Baal didn’t see us that day, by the way. He didn’t say “hi” or “Greet all the folks in Chicago.” It says, “They have ears, but do not hear; noses (obviously they need a nose), but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”
Can you imagine what an insult it was to have Israel running around worshipping these kinds of idols, turning away from the true God? Notice what God said in Exodus 20. He said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Lord says, “I’m the one who did all that,” and then the people turn around and give credit to a god that can’t see, speak, smell, walk or act. What an insult! But you know there’s something about idolatry that’s even worse than that. It is not only insulting to God. It always ensnares men, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because there’s no such thing as a god that does not demand sacrifice.
You will find that when the Israelites worshipped Baal and Malak and all these other gods, they ended up doing all sorts of sacrificial things. It says in the book of Kings that the Israelites caused their children to walk through the fire in admiration and devotion to Malak and to Baal, because even when you serve a false god, that god will demand obedience and sacrifice, and he will always ensnare; he will always degrade.
Well, now let’s talk for a few moments about some of our gods. Remember that any god that is put in your mind and heart above the living and the true living God is an idol. It doesn’t have to be made out of wood and stone. So let’s choose some of the gods of today’s society just for a moment. Let’s take sensuality as a god – sexual looseness as we have it in our society. There are some people who say, “I will elevate that above God because I will violate what God has said in order to fulfill certain desires. That is my god. That stands in competition to the living and the true God. I defy the true God. God says one thing but I am going to do another,” and that’s idolatry. And have you ever thought of the sacrifice that that god asks people to make? That god will immediately take people and make them liars. I have yet to know someone who is into sensuality who is not also a liar. He will degrade their character. He will degrade their reputation and then on top of that, he will demand whenever he can the sacrifice of human beings, and we see that today in the great abortion movement where people are saying, “We will hang on to sexual looseness at any cost, and we will kill children in order to mop up our sins, because we will serve the god of sexuality no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice.”
Take, for example, the god of money. What a deceptive god that is! People say, “I will serve that god. I will hold onto that god,” and you find that god begins to erode character. He begins to cause people to trample on one another and to hurt one another, and to ignore other more essential needs because the god of money comes not just to participate with us in life but he always comes to take over. Every god you serve desires domination.
Pride – the other god! “I’ll serve myself. I’ll do my own thing. I’ll find my own way. I will hang on to my own rights,” and you find out that you were driven by all kinds of forces within you, and all kinds of unhappiness and anxiety and frustration and problems, and your selfishness will get in the way of other people and you will become insensitive. Why? It’s because you say, “I will serve that god,” and he will demand and he will want to take over and control and dominate. Every god wants to.
So the Lord says, “Thou shall have no other god before me. You shall have nothing that you shall elevate above me in your thinking or your imagination or your allegiance. You shall have no other god before me.
Let me summarize all this in three statements that are connected to one another, but logically follow one another. Here are the three statements. Statement number one: Every person has a god. Every one. You say, “Well, Pastor, I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure that I have a god.” Let me help you do a little research to find out who your god is. Okay? It’s very simple. It’s a little test. Here it is.
First of all, what is it that you think about most often in your free time? That’s test number one. Test number two is, whom do you really wish to please in life? That’s it. Wasn’t that simple? It’s harmless, but you answer those two questions, and you will find out who your god really is. And you’ll soon find out whether or not there is something in your life, whether it’s your job or whether it’s another person, or whether it is earning money, or whether it is your future, or whatever, that you have elevated above the living and the true god. Every person has a god. There’s no question about that, and it’s what we think about and whom we wish to please (whether ourselves or others) that is our god. Every person has a god. That’s statement number one.
Statement number two is every god demands allegiance. That is true of the living and the true God as well as all the false gods that people chase around after in today’s world. Every single god comes to take over. There’s no such thing as a god saying, “I will participate with you in the process of running your life.” Every god comes to say, “I will dominate. I will come to control.”
And then the third statement is that every domination means slavery. That’s true of the true God and it’s also true of the false gods. For example the Apostle Paul said in Romans that he was a slave to God. He said, “I am a bond slave of Jesus Christ,” and so he is a slave too. I am a slave too and so are you. The question is not whether or not you will be a slave, because you are. The question is whose slave will you be because every god is expecting domination and control.
I want you to know that there is a world of difference in absolute light years in being a slave of the living and the true God, and being a slave to an idol, because when you are a slave to an idol you become the slave of sin. Always! Inevitably and necessarily it must be so. And when you are a slave to the living and the true God, you serve, yes, but you do not serve under the domination of sin. You serve in willing obedience to God, who has captured you and mastered you because he has given his life for you. The difference is overwhelming.
Let me illustrate it to you. The Bible says in Romans 1 beginning at verse 21 when speaking of the heathen, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” There you have the idolatry. It says, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.” In other words, “If you’re going to serve an idol you are going to be a slave to sin and sensuality.” And then it says in verse 25, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” And in verse 26 it says again, “For this reason God gave them to dishonorable passions.” And then, lest we should miss it, in the middle of verse 28 it says it again. “God gave them up,” and then follows just an ugly, unbelievable catalog of sins. It’s one of the longest lists of sins in the entire Bible, and it covers the waterfront. Believe me!
Now here’s the point. When man abandons the living and the true God and begins to create idols either in the imagination or of wood and stone, and he exalts something above God, he always ends up in slavery, debauchery, and he becomes subservient to another god who drives and pushes him and shoves him and controls him. And the only way out of that slavery is to turn to the living and the true God.
You know, if we may put this command positively, we’ll find that Jesus said in the New Testament, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” And the bottom line of what I want to say to you today is simply this, that God desires that there be within us a love for him that has no competition. He asks of us that we take down every idol, everything that we have exalted above him, and that we might in the sanctuary and in the shrine of our hearts have a place only for him and love him supremely without any rivalry at all.
All of us know that if there is anything that causes unfulfillment in a wife it’s when she lives with a husband whose attention and whose loyalty is divided, and in whose heart there is rivalry. God feels that too, by the way. “Thou shall love him with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”
Now I have to ask you what is standing in the way in your life that prevents you from loving God that way? Whatever it is, it’s an idol that must be forsaken.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father today we thank you that your word is so clear. “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” We confess idolatry, Father. We confess that to be a part of our experience, exalting imaginations and desires and ways above what you have said. Oh Father, today, we pray that you might help us to just clean out our lives. There may be some people bowed in your presence whose whole lives are built on idols. We pray that you might help us to cast those out, and we ask you to do that in the name of Jesus, our Savior.
Oh Father, we pray that you might enable us to love you with a pure, undivided attention, body, soul and spirit, to love you with our hearts and minds and souls. Teach us, Father, to do that. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.