The First Four Commandments

They show us how to love God.

Holy, Righteous, and Good (6)

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment.” Matthew 22.37, 38

First and great
The Law of God is to the rest of divine revelation in Scripture as the acorn is to the oak. It’s all there from the beginning, waiting only to take root and begin to grow. All the prophets – historical prophets and writing prophets – and the writers of the wisdom literature all look back to the Law of God before looking around at the situation of their nation and forward to the promises of God. As far as Old Testament writers were concerned, keeping the Law defined the people of Israel at their best, and condemned them at their worst. Even more than that, as Solomon put it, fearing God and keeping His commands is the whole duty of all people (Eccl. 12.13).

The Law in all its forms can be collected under two large headings, as explained by our Lord Jesus Christ. The statutes, rules, precepts, judgments, testimonies, and commandments that relate to or clarify the first four commandments are all given to teach us how to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, as well as all our strength (Deut. 6.5; cf. Mk. 12.30). Jesus described this as the “first of all the commandments” (Mk. 12.29) and the “first and great commandment” (Matt. 22.38). It is inconceivable that this commandment, and anything that attaches to it, explains it, directs us for its obedience, or guides and clarifies it for our understanding could be set aside and regarded as no longer valid.

The first and great commandment is an apt summary of the first four of the Ten Commandments, those that are given to teach us how to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Let’s take a closer, albeit brief, look at these commandments.

Loving God
First, it’s important to be clear that we will not love our neighbors as God does if we do not first love God. Loving God can be very difficult, and that for a variety of reasons.

One, because we are fallen, sinful, and prone to rely on our senses and fallible reason, loving God is difficult because we can’t see Him. Our ability to love people, places, and things is bound up with how they appear to us. To love God, Who does not appear to us, can therefore be very difficult. Even the liveliest imagination can struggle to envision God with sufficient clarity and consistency to love Him as if we were seeing Him.

Two, loving God is difficult because He is so infinitely different from us, and His ideas about love are far above and beyond and superior to ours. Apart from guidance from Him, we would be left on our own to show God that we love Him. In certain cultures, practitioners of religions other than that of the Scriptures have contrived practices as expressions of devotion to their god or gods which we find disgusting and reprehensible. This was the problem with true religion in the Old Testament. God’s people tended to look to other religions and their gods, and how to worship and honor those gods, and they ended up offending God to the point of His judging them. Our minds are just not clever enough to figure out the best or right ways of loving God.

So if we are to love God so that by knowing Him we have Him eternal life, (Jn. 17.3) unending joy, and power for full and abundant life, we need to look to Him for guidance. We need God to say to us, “This is the way to love Me, so that I am honored and you are blessed.”

And, happily, He has done just that.

One to four

In the first commandment, God clears away any confusion about whom or what to worship, and He provides ample reason for why we who have been saved should love Him and no other gods (Ex. 20.1-3; Deut. 5.6, 7). He has saved us from our bondage to sin by sending Jesus to pay the debt and fulfill the righteousness we need to become sons and daughters of the living God (Jn. 1.12). He Who loved us enough to save us deserves alone to be the ultimate focus of our desire and our devotion. Nothing else can help us realize the fullness of abundant life in Jesus, so that we know our happiest, most purposeful, and most satisfying existence by having only God as the aim and desire of our hearts, mind, souls, and strength.

The second commandment helps us resist the all-too-human temptation to want to see God by insisting that we must not make any representations of Him (Ex. 20.4-6; Deut. 5.8-10. Instead of enabling greater love for Him, idols and graven images, embraced as aids to worship or devotion, end up minimizing God. If we can move Him from one room to the next, or rearrange His place on the mantle, how can we possible trust Him with the big issues of life. Additionally, anything else that we love more than God, or before or instead of God, becomes an idol, even if it takes the form of a stock portfolio or other human enticements. In the second commandment, God says, in effect, “Let your heart and mind and soul grow in knowing and loving me according to My Word, not your ideas or works.”

The third commandment helps us to honor the Name of God, and thus to preserve and nurture authentic love for Him, in two ways (Ex. 20.7; Deut. 5. 11). First, it prevents us from reducing God’s Name to some kind of magic charm, invoked either to buttress our words or to make us appear more righteous than we are. Second, the third commandment teaches us to take God’s Name but to take it with effects that are consistent with that Name – effects such as good works. If we say we believe in God, then we expect to show that by effects that demonstrate His Name to the world – righteousness, peace, joy, good works, and so forth. As James reminds us, to take God’s Name without such effects is just dead faith, that is, no true faith at all (Jms. 2.14-26).

The fourth commandment is a standing invitation from God for a weekly retreat in Him (Ex. 20.8-11; Deut. 5.12-15). After a hard week of work and serving others, God invites us to the quintessential getaway for rest and refreshment – Himself. By devoting one day to Him, along with Christians everywhere, we empty the cares of the week onto His desk; participate in His Presence through worship and the Supper; are renewed by His Word in preaching that supplements our daily reading and meditation; and are strengthened in the use of our mind, heart, and soul to know and love God. Thus, when Monday comes around, we will be well prepared to go forth and love God with all our strength as well, in all the work He’s given us to do.

Raise your hand if you want to see God in His glory, know Him present with You in power, be refreshed and renewed in Him, and be transformed increasingly into the image and likeness of His Son. The first four commandments together make up the great commandment to love God first and foremost. Duly observed, they can keep you in the Presence of God day by day, so that you know Him in His glory, and He shows His glory through you to others.

Learn, obey, and walk within these commandments, and your love for God will increase dramatically.

For reflection
1.  Why is loving God the first and great commandment?

2.  How does each of the first four commandments aid us in loving God?

3.  What would you say to someone who says we don’t need to keep the first four commandments?

Next steps – Transformation: Memorize the first four commandments. Pray through them throughout the day.

T. M. Moore

One way to add reading and meditation in the Law to your daily devotional life is to download A Kingdom Catechism, which contains 135 questions and answers to help you make better lawful use of God’s Law in your daily life (click here).

For additional insight to the contemporary relevance of God’s Law, download the three studies in our Scriptorium series, “The Law of God: Miscellanies” by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore