The First and Great Commandment

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The First and Great Commandment

This article begins our series on the Ten Commandments. Be sure to read and study all the scriptures quoted.
From the March-April 2004 Trumpet Print Edition

America and Britain are at the forefront of international news. Do our peoples understand what is happening? It is not good news. Negative headlines are turning the world against us. A recent poll shows that many nations see America and Britain as aggressors that threaten the peace and stability of the world. Some accuse us of a Hitler-style foreign policy.

Our world has changed drastically over the last several decades. Several powerful nations are laying down new rules for the game of international politics. America, Britain and our fellow nations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel are in real trouble. There is a cause. What is it? Will our peoples listen when it is explained to them? The truthful answer is no. But you can know the cause—and learn from it—if you are willing to open your mind and take an honest look at what you are reading.

There is a lesson our nations will be taught forcibly over the next few months and years. God is going to teach it personally. It will be harsh and difficult. Yet our nations will learn!

It gets even more positive. The entire world will benefit from our mistakes. Through our tribulation, the entire world will also learn the same vital lesson.

Descendants of Israel

Regular readers know that the Trumpet magazine supports the biblical truth that the peoples of modern-day Israel (including the U.S., Britain and Israel) are the descendants of the 10 lost tribes of ancient Israel. For a thorough explanation of this doctrine, write for a free copy of The United States and Britain in Prophecy.

God purposed to use ancient Israel—our ancestors—as a model to teach all the nations of the world about the benefits and blessings of knowing and obeying the true God. The people of ancient Israel were to set an example in obeying His laws—the Ten Commandments—given for all mankind! Obedience would ensure that Israel would dominate the world in power, wealth and influence. It would be the nation for all other nations to look up to. Israel’s blessings would confirm for every man that there is only one right way to live—the way of God’s law. All nations willing to follow Israel’s good example would have received the same blessings.

In a similar way, if Israel disobeyed God, the nation would write a bitter lesson for all to see. The whole world would learn that rebellion toward God brings curses—terror, famine, sickness and enemy attacks. History shows that ancient Israel repeatedly disobeyed God. The curses came. Israel suffered horribly and was eventually taken into captivity. The nations of modern Israel are about to experience the same fate. Why haven’t we learned from our ancestors’ history?

God’s purpose for the modern nations of Israel is the same today as it was anciently: to set an example of obedience. America and Britain have enjoyed unparalleled wealth, power and influence. Few stop to consider how we have come to such greatness. We should want to fully understand the reason our nations enjoy so much wealth and power. It could only have come from God. Yet, just like our ancestors before us, we are vain. We refuse to acknowledge our history with God. We think all of our manifold blessings have come as a result of our own strength and effort. So God is taking them away to teach us the truth!

What is the cause for the decline of American and British influence in the world? It is simple to understand. Our nations have forgotten God. We no longer hold great reverence and respect for Almighty God. In fact, we flagrantly disobey the First Commandment, which states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Let’s understand this—the first, and most important, of the Ten Commandments!

Foundation of Knowledge

Do you truly want to understand the First Commandment? That is a fair question. If you do, where do you turn for such understanding? Should you go to a modern college or university? Here is a real paradox. The men and women in our colleges and universities have discovered, collected and disseminated volumes of stupendous scientific and technical knowledge. College library shelves are bursting with books. Still, although we have grown in material knowledge, we have never been more confused about spiritual subjects like the Ten Commandments. We simply have not grown in our knowledge about God and His ways. In fact, we know less about God today than did our relatives of several generations ago.

If you were to go to a local college, could you get answers to these questions? Who gave us the Ten Commandments? Was it God or Moses? Are they for the Jews only? Are the Ten Commandments in force today? Let’s be honest. You will find no answers there. Most likely you would get laughed at for asking such questions. But these are important questions that need to be answered.

Who would dare teach a class about the Ten Commandments at a public college? Teaching any knowledge about God and His laws is banned from public schools. Who decided that this would be the way it is? Think before you answer that question. Here is the truth: We did! No tyrant has forced us. We have chosen for ourselves and our children. We don’t want to know spiritual truth. Why not?

Intellectual vanity prevents us from going to the source of spiritual knowledge that reveals spiritual truth—the Holy Bible. Clever arguments and deceitful philosophy have relegated the Bible to mere myth or dubious history, written by ignorant men. Many believe that mankind has outgrown the need for Bible teaching. The absence of Bible knowledge in current education shows that most have blindly followed this line of thinking.

Is it any different in religious or Christian colleges? Not really. Even those institutions claiming to be religious don’t teach belief in the entire Bible. The majority of Christians read only the New Testament. In so doing, most modern Christians believe that Jesus Christ got rid of the Ten Commandments. Did He? You need to know.

To fully understand the First Commandment, we must come to see the historic importance of the events surrounding the giving of the Ten Commandments. This is revealed solely in the Bible—the foundation for all knowledge.

Accurate History

The history of the giving of the Ten Commandments is recorded for us in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Studying that history helps us to understand the context in which the First Commandment was given. Genesis shows us that the Israelites were the direct descendants of Abraham. They had moved into Egypt at the time of the patriarchs Jacob and Joseph because of severe famine in the land of Canaan. Exodus shows that the fledgling Israelite nation grew to millions and became a potential military threat to the Egyptians. Pharaoh cunningly moved against the people, enslaving and brutalizing them with physical beatings, poverty and hard labor. God chose Moses and Aaron to break them free from that bondage. Through the miracles of the plagues, Israel escaped from their oppressors. Then, over a period of about seven weeks, the massive assembly was directed out of Egypt into the Sinai desert wilderness. Not unlike refugee camps seen on tv news today, they set up a huge tent city at the base of the mountain commonly known as Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:2). It was here that the people were directly introduced to God and His laws.

The Exodus account is truly awesome when you read it with full belief in its historical accuracy. Clearly, God gave the Ten Commandments, not Moses. God spoke each one before the entire nation of Israel. The manner in which God delivered these laws gives us real insight into how to both understand and keep the First Commandment.

Moses was called up to the top of the mountain to meet with God (v. 3). God had a proposal for the people (vv. 4-6). Herbert W. Armstrong explains, “And there the Eternal gave him a proposition to lay before those millions of people. This proposition—or agreement—was that which we call the ‘Old Covenant’—the covenant agreement for making of these people a nation—God’s own nation on Earth.

“The proposition provided that God was to be their sole King and Ruler. Their government was to be a theocracy. God was the Lawmaker, not a congress, or parliament. God would appoint leading men to execute His orders” (Which Day Is the Christian Sabbath?, p. 30).

Moses returned to the tent city “and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him” (v. 7). Of course, the people unanimously and immediately agreed (v. 8). Why not? God had promised to make them the leading nation in power and wealth above all other nations: “[I]f ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine” (v. 5). Moses returned the words of the people back to God. Then God gave Moses specific instructions on how to prepare the people to meet with God. They were given three days to clean up themselves and their clothes.

On the morning of the third day, an incredible event took place. There was real drama on top of the mountain. A thick cloud hovered over it. Loud peals of thunder crashed through the air. Terrible lightning flashed everywhere. The noise of a continuous ear-piercing trumpet blast sounded. The entire camp of Israel trembled in fear. History was being made right before their eyes. Moses led the people to the base of the mountain.

The Almighty God

When the people were properly assembled, God descended upon the mountain in a fire. It became instantly engulfed in flames. Huge pillars of billowing smoke added to the terror of the moment. Then the mountain began to shake with massive earthquakes. The trumpet blast grew louder and louder. Paul tells us in Hebrews that Moses shook with fear because of the experience (Heb. 12:21).

To break the incredible tension, Moses spoke to God—and God spoke back to him. All the people heard God’s own voice. God called Moses up to the mountain to give additional instructions. Because of God’s holy presence, the people were not to climb onto the mountain (Exod. 19:20-25). Exodus 20 shows that God, with a booming voice, commanded His nation His laws. You and I would have been deathly afraid had we been there.

Mr. Armstrong wrote, “Can you picture it? I think I can—at least partially. Years ago—in early winter, 1934—I was driving around the Mt. Hood Loop in Oregon. Reaching the east of Mt. Hood, there was a spur road leading to the very base, and part way up the mountain. As I reached this spot, a frightening storm developed around the snow-capped peak just above me. A dark, foreboding cloud—the darkest I had ever seen—hovered over the top of the mountain. Lightning flashed, so bright I had to hide my eyes. Thunderclaps resounded louder, sharper, than any I had ever heard in Iowa or Nebraska. I drove back down, away from that storm, as fast as safety would allow. It was the most frightening, terrifying sight I had ever witnessed. It seemed to display the magnitude of the very fury of Almighty God!

“I thought, then, of only one thing—this very experience when God thundered down from Mt. Sinai His great spiritual law! Only I realized that what I saw and heard must have been tame by comparison. Yet it caused me to realize what an imagination-defying experience occurred in the sight of all Israel!” (ibid., p. 32). Like Mr. Armstrong, we should strive to get the picture of what happened to Israel on that day.

God displayed His great power to make a real impact on His people—not to threaten or do harm—but to reveal Himself. God wanted the people to know Him for their benefit! He wanted to impress upon the people the vital significance of His law. He desires to do the same for us today. Through His Holy Spirit, God will make a real impact on the minds of His called-out ones if they honestly want it!

Getting to Know God

Moses records for us, “And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:1-3). Spoken just after the thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, trumpet blast and earthquake, the people easily got the message. This God who spoke to them was an awesome Being of incredible power. His control over the elements on Mt. Sinai proved He was the Creator. There simply was no other God. God made His wishes plain. To become His nation, the people first and most importantly had to worship and obey Him!

Remember, Israel had been enslaved by a people that worshiped many gods. Our ancestors had seen and no doubt experienced pagan worship. Through the 10 plagues, God showed the people that the Egyptian gods were dead and powerless (Exod. 12:12). The Egyptian religion was absolutely worthless. It was now time for Israel to come out of religious confusion. But, in case they didn’t get the point of the plagues, God reminded them, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2). The message from God was so clear. No Egyptian god could prevent their escape. Only a mighty God could break them free from pharaoh’s power.

The word Lord in this verse comes from the Hebrew word YHVH. It is a well-known fact that no one knows how to spell or pronounce this word since the vowels were not preserved in the Hebrew textural traditions. But we do know that the word means the Eternal, or the Self-Existent One, or the Ever Living One. God revealed to His people that the One speaking had always existed. He predated all of their ancestors, including Abraham. In fact, this Being predated man!

Israel had experienced a supernatural liberation. Now the people knew for sure that their God, spoken about by Moses and Aaron, was God! The Self-Existent One let them know that there was no higher god. He intended that they never forget this fact. The Ever Living One had personally set them free from cruel torture. He saw to it that they no longer had to live in crowded squalor. The Eternal God released them from the monotonous drudgery of day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year slave-labor. Israel was now given the opportunity to serve a living and loving God (Deut. 7:7-8).

Eternal’s Law

Another important point must be made. The Eternal One’s law is also eternal. God is a spirit and has eternally existed (John 4:24). God’s law is spiritual and has always existed. Anyone willing to read Genesis with an open mind is able to recognize that the Ten Commandments have been in force since the creation of man. They were given to all men to bring untold happiness and peace and blessings. But the first two humans—Adam and Eve—rejected the way of this spiritual law.

Now, through Israel, God was giving every man, woman and child on Earth another opportunity to know and live by this law. We must see that God simply used this nation as an example. Israel’s righteous leaders knew and taught this fact. Some 41 years later, as Israel set up their first camp at Gilgal in the Promised Land, Joshua reminded them why God had delivered them: “That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the Lord your God for ever” (Josh. 4:24). All people on Earth must come to know the Eternal God and His mighty power. It is a power that God desires to use to aid all mankind. God wanted Israel to be a living demonstration of His great goodness.

There is a deep spiritual lesson in all this. In biblical theology, Egypt is a type of sin. Pharaoh is a type of Satan. The devil is at work to enslave all men in sin. Few believe in a devil today.

What is sin? Despite what men say, the Bible states, “[S]in is the transgression of the law” (i John 3:4). Sin is breaking God’s spiritual law—the Ten Commandments.

God desires to set all men free from such bondage. God is a God of freedom. Obeying God’s law is the only way to true freedom.

Do you know the Eternal God? In fact, do you even know what God is? Do you know His purpose for your life? Mr. Armstrong answered these all-important questions in the first chapter of his final book, Mystery of the Ages. He wrote, “In this chapter I hope we will help make God as real to you as your own human father. God does reveal Himself to us in the Bible, if we will just understand it, so that He will seem real to us” (p. 32). You may have a free copy of this book if you request it.

As a nation, we have never been more confused about God. God no longer seems real to us. Only the Bible can reveal Him to you. It is a simple fact that if you don’t know your Bible you don’t know God. But, you can know God!

All About Government

Notice also that Joshua reminded Israel that all people on Earth must come to fear God. The word fear in the Hebrew is yare and simply means deep reverence or respect. God’s religion is not a fear religion. God does not want any of us to have an unnatural fear of Him. But God does demand respect.

The First Commandment teaches us that we must respect the high office and authority of Almighty God. Essentially, this commandment shows us that we must come under the government of God. God must rule our very lives—personally! When the people of ancient Israel heard God speak this First Commandment, they knew that their God was a God of law and government. The people were left with no doubt that it was the government of God that would make them a great nation.

James tells us, “There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy …” (James 4:12). Jesus Christ’s gospel message was about the Kingdom, or coming government or rule, of God (Mark 1:14-15). That is God’s number-one goal at this time—to reestablish His government on Earth. Yet, in our Western society, there is little respect for any constituted authority. In America and Britain, people work to get around law and government rather than obey either.

In addition, our peoples have shown great disrespect for God. How? The foundation for most education in our secular colleges and universities is the theory of evolution. Evolution is simply the belief in a creation without a creator. This false teaching is a great affront to God. Based solely on human reasoning, this sinister deception has wrecked the faith of millions. It denies the true God and His power and high office as Creator and Sustainer of all life. It is time we wake up and get back to respecting God. If we do, God will use His great power to deliver us from our enemies. If we don’t, surely we must see that our future is bleak.

God commanded the people, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The Hebrew word for before is al. Strong’s Concordance shows that this word can also be translated as above, against or in place of. To fully obey this commandment, man must never put another god above,against or in place of the Eternal God. There simply is no other God. God makes it very clear through the pages of the Bible, “I am God, and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22). The God of the Bible must be dominant in our lives—no one or anything else should ever take His place.

Jesus Christ taught this same principle. Study Luke 14:26. The Greek word for hate is miseo and means “to love less by comparison.” Essentially, this means that we must put God and His priorities first in our lives. We must put God’s desires before our own or any other man’s desires.

Paul said, “Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness” (Rom. 6:16). Who do we obey? How often do we let family, friends or our careers dictate what we do? Are there times we knowingly disobey God because we don’t want to go against our families, our friends or the boss? God views such behavior as idolatry!

We should examine how much time we spend with material things and interests. How we use our time says a lot about our worship. Do we really understand the word worship? Most people reserve their religion for one service, one day a week. But God expects much more than that. God wants total commitment to Him every day, all day. True worship affects every thought and every action, all the time. The stark reality is, we are either serving God, or we are serving ourselves and Satan the devil!

How much time do we spend thinking about God? Do we pray? Do we study our Bibles? Many American and British homes have Bibles that are never read. How much time do we devote to our hobbies, or sports, television and material goods? If we leave no time for God, we are guilty of idolatry.

Cling to God

Moses told the people, “Ye shall walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him” (Deut. 13:4). The First Commandment requires that we diligently seek after God. The Hebrew word for cleave is dabaq. Strong’s Concordance defines this as, to cling to, adhere to or pursue hard. It is similar to clinging to a mate or a beloved family member. To cling to God is to desire to spend lots of time with Him. Clinging to God means doing those things that please Him. If we truly love God, we will pursue hard after Him.

When asked which was the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus Christ said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matt. 22:37). God desires that we love Him with all of our being. That is true religion.

All men must learn to serve the living God with a willing heart. Why? We were created by God for His purpose and pleasure (Rev. 4:11). God has given us every good gift (James 1:17). God has given us life, talents and abilities—everything we have. We must devote all of what God has given us to accomplishing His will and purpose. When we do, God will continue to shower us with good things.

Jesus Christ set a perfect example of obedience for us. He faithfully obeyed the First Commandment. He put God first and above all else. Look at the incredible results. God was with Him and got Him through every trial. Why? Christ said, “[T]he Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him” (John 8:29). This is the perfect way to keep the first and great commandment.

The question is, will we obey? If we do, we are promised the same blessings bestowed upon Jesus Christ. Let’s all learn to obey this first and great commandment.