Different traditions attribute different numbering to the Ten Words; however, the Catholic/Lutheran numbering of the Ten Words is what makes the most sense from the text.  According to that tradition, the first commandment is Exodus 20:2-5,

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for youself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God”

This commandment being given to the Israelites who, for the past couple hundred years had been in slavery to one of the most idolatrous nations to have ever existed.  The Egyptians were no strangers to worshiping various images or creatures or creations.  They routinely made statues or paintings of people or things they worshiped.  This commandment is something quite out of the ordinary for the Israelite people.

For us, it may seem a bit less explicit.  We don’t tend to build statues and bow down before it.  So, to see the relevance of this gracious word, an explanation of what an idol is might be helpful.  Here is a quote from Pastor Mark Driscoll from an interview on Nightline,

” An idol is someone or something that occupies the place of God in your life–preeminent, prominent, the center of your life, most important person/thing, gives you identity, meaning, value, purpose, love, significance, security–when the Bible uses the word ‘idol’ that’s what its getting at.”

John Calvin says, “the human mind is a perpetual factory of idols”.  Idolatry did not end when the commandment came.  It did not cease when America was born.  And it certainly is not a foreign practice to us today.  If a 1st century Jew was teleported to a 21st century basketball game, political rally, concert, mall, it would appear to him to be some sort of worship ceremony.

Our trust is in how big of a hard drive we have; our identity lies in our grades, skills, careers; our affections and thoughts center around boyfriends/girlfriends; the most valuable thing to us is our ipod; the most consistent activity in our days is prime time television.  We are idolaters.  Do not be fooled.  This commandment may be one of the most relevant for us today.

Why is this gracious?

“I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:5-6).

God’s character is to be incredibly jealous for his worship.  When we worship him alone, he shows steadfast love to us for thousands of generations.  This commandment is for our supreme enjoyment of a gracious God.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  There is no right worship of God without a rightful worship of his Son, Jesus.  Perhaps this is why the apostle John concludes his first epistle with this statement, “[Jesus Christ] is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”