The Requirement of the First Commandment
When we study the Ten Commandments, we find there is more there than meets the eye. Most of the commandments are stated negatively (“you shall not”) because this is the simplest form of command. Every parent understands this, as theologian Sinclair Ferguson explains:
We do not first try to explain to infants how electricity works and then tell them not to stick a screwdriver into the electric socket. We first do only the latter, warning them that it may do them harm and cause them pain. Perhaps several years will elapse before we provide them with a positive explanation of how electricity works. The negative command is more straightforward, simpler, and requires less explanation. (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 149.)
So when we ponder what it is that is required by a negative command, we have some thinking to do. The reason God prohibits certain things is because he requires its opposite. We must consider not only what it is God prohibits us from doing but also what it is he is exhorting us to do.
The first commandment God gave is this: “You shall have no other gods before me.” What does the first commandment require? The answer to this question in our catechism (Question 77) is this:
The first commandment requires us to know and recognize God as the only true God, as our God, and to worship and glorify him accordingly.
The first commandment requires us to know God, and the primary and definitive way to know God is in Scripture in general and in Jesus Christ in particular. So we need to know our Bibles, for there we will encounter the God of history. And we meet him most clearly in the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, whose mission included making God known (Jn 17:25-26).
When we read our Bibles, the most important thing we are after is the knowledge of God. We dare not trust our opinions to shape our thinking about who God is. We need instead to listen to what God tells us about himself. That is the only way we can rightly know God.
Recognizing Our God
But a person can know “the God of the Bible” and deny that such a being even exists (Psa 14:1). The first commandment, in addition to requiring us to know God, requires us to recognize him “as the only true God” and “as our God.”
We are commanded to have no other gods before God precisely because there is no other God. There may be “so-called gods,” but there is only one true God, the Creator of all there is (1 Cor 8:4-6). The only true God is the self-existent God; everything else that we try to exalt to God-like status is a created entity, something infinitely less than God.
Thus, what this first commandment requires is for our good because it commands us to have as our God the One who alone deserves that designation. It’s like commanding us to accept nothing less than the best. It is a good command!
Worship and Glorify God
To have the one true God as our God means we are privileged to enjoy him as such. We are commanded by the first commandment to worship and glorify God supremely. He should command all our attention and all our devotion, not because we have to satisfy him in order to get on with our lives, but because he alone can satisfy us. We were made for God, so we will find our lives full and complete only as we increasingly know him, love him, and enjoy him forever.