At the time of the Exodus, virtually all other nations (including Egypt) had many gods. While living in Egypt, the Israelites had probably come to take the polytheistic outlook for granted. The early Gentile Christians also came from a polytheistic background. They had been able to ‘pick and choose’ their favourite deity (or deities) from among the many available – whichever one suited their personality and circumstances, or the one that offered the best deal. And modern Western culture is (under the surface) just as polytheistic as in ancient times. It is widely regarded as ‘self-evident’ that all religions are equal (or even the same), and all must be given equal space in a pluralistic society. You can follow whichever creed you like – as long as you keep your beliefs to yourself! Or why not take the ‘pick’n’mix’ approach, combining elements from several different religions (for example – Christ’s moral teaching, astrological guidance, and yoga for meditation)?
Jews and Christians have also had to contend with mankind’s natural tendency to worship the things of this world (Romans 1:25): the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars and planets), mountains and rivers (such as the River Nile, deified by the Egyptians because their agriculture was so utterly dependent on the annual floods), powerful people (such as the emperor-cult of Rome), and – last but not least – Money.
Only one God
The nation of Israel had to follow a radically different path from every other nation on the face of the earth. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3) The plagues had shown them that Yahweh was more powerful then any of the Egyptian gods. He had demonstrated most emphatically that He could protect his people, guide them, provide for them and give them everything necessary for true life. He was worthy of their entire and exclusive trust. They did not need any other god; therefore they were to serve only Him.
To worship another god would not only imply that He was in some way inadequate (an insult to Him); it would also be rebellion against His Lordship (because they were supposed to belong to Him), and a breach of the special and exclusive relationship between Him and His people (provoking His jealousy).
Yet Israel found this first commandment a constant struggle. Before they even reached Canaan, they were drawn into the worship of the Baals – the fertility gods. (e.g. Numbers 25) Although they were supposed to eradicate all traces of the Canaanite religion from their land, they never actually did so (e.g. Judges 2:11-13). In later times, foreign cults were frequently imported by the kings – starting with Solomon (I Kings 11:1-8) and continuing with Ahab (I Kings 16:30-33) and Ahaz (II Kings 16:10-16), among others. But Yahweh will not be content with being one god – not even a favourite god – among many. He demands our absolute and total allegiance, and will tolerate no rivals. (I Kings 18:21) It was because of their persistent idolatry that the kingdom of Israel was eventually rejected (II Kings 17:15-20). We can’t call ourselves God’s people if we are actually worshipping something or someone else.
Jesus – the only way
By the time Jesus came, the Jews had more or less grasped the principle of monotheism. The Exile had finally brought home to them the consequences of idolatry, and since returning to their land they had been steadfast in resisting foreign religious influences. And yet the temptation to put their trust in material things (rather than, or as well as, God) still remained very strong. Why else would Jesus devote so much of His teaching to the dangers of wealth? The rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-27) is a case in point. He claimed to have kept all the commandments – and yet, when Jesus challenged him to choose between keeping his riches and following Jesus, it became apparent that money was the most important thing in his life.
Jesus taught us to put loyalty to Him above all other loyalties – even ‘good’ loyalties, such as to our family (Luke 14:25,26). And by so doing, He implied that He Himself is the God that we should worship exclusively. To follow Him is to serve the true God. And there is no alternative (John 14:6). “Jesus is Lord” became the most basic statement of Christian faith (Romans 10:9; I Corinthians 12:3).
Jesus is Lord
Just as Israel had to resist the temptation to worship the fertility gods of her neighbours, so we must resist the popular conception that all religions are equally valid, and also renounce the specific idols of our contemporary secular culture: fame, power, and (above all) money. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (I Corinthians 8:4-6)
But, like the Israelites (who tried to worship both Yahweh and Baal at the same time), we often try to combine faith in Jesus with faith in someone or something else – and for us, this is usually money. The problem is that things such as money cannot be totally rejected; it is impossible to live without it in modern society. Few of Jesus’ followers were commanded to ‘sell everything’ at once (the rich young ruler was an exception); but they were all willing to give money and possessions at any time to serve their Lord or to help others (Acts 4:34,35). Paul’s advice to Timothy sums it up: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (I Timothy 6:17,18)
Money remains a very ‘sensitive’ issue amongst Christians – probably because this is the area where we are the most vulnerable to temptation, and the least aware of it. But anyone who tries to divide his allegiance between God and something else has actually given it to something else (Matthew 6:24). If there is only one God… then He is God of the whole universe, God everywhere, and God in every age. And if Jesus is Lord, then He is Lord over every area of my life – including my family and my finances!
“See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: “Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.” (Luther: The First Commandment)