Beginning With God Himself
According to Jesus the first and greatest commandment is not to love God with all your heart. For to love Him is to serve Him. But all service to God is vanity apart from an accurate knowledge of Who He is. Jesus was not commending the woman at the well when he said, “ye worship ye know not what” (Jn. 4:22) and the apostle Paul did not endorse the service of the “Unknown God” whom the Athenians “ignorantly worshiped” (Acts 17:23). Rather Paul declared plainly that all such devotion is superstition and idolatry. Therefore when Jesus was asked by the scribe, “Which is the first commandment of all?” he was careful to begin his answer in the right place. “And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart” (Mk. 2:29-30). In other words, because zeal without knowledge is condemned in Scripture (Rom. 10:1-2), love for God has knowledge of God as its only legitimate starting point – (see Acts 9:4-6)!
Following the pattern of Scripture the Belgic Confession of Faith also starts with God Himself. And just like Jesus, it aims to first of all make Him known – not in what He commands but in Who He is. To this effect the opening line of the Confession begins with a powerful monotheistic declaration. In Article (1) we read, “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is one only simple and spiritual Being which we call God…” In this (partial) introductory statement the Belgic Confession provides us with an unparalleled description of God in His Unity “one only” and in His Simplicity “simple and spiritual.” In this study we will look at the first of these characteristics, and in the next installment we will explore the second, and then the third.
There is Only One God
In opposition to all pagan religion the core confession of the Christian faith is belief in one God. In dualism good and evil are two co-dominant principals locked in perpetual rivalry. In polytheism there is an infinite variety of gods and goddesses characteristic of the men who imagine them. In pantheism everything is God and God is everything. But in Christianity the Bible reveals that there is only one God, besides Whom there is no other. He alone made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is. Therefore God is not only distinct from all things created, He is sovereign over them. In short – God has no rivals.
I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. (Isa. 44:6) See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand. (Deut. 32:39)
When we see in Scripture that creatures are called by the name of God, we are not to conclude on that basis that they are the true and living God. Instead, we are to learn that in some way and to some degree God permits them to operate in a capacity that reflects something of His own character. For example, in Scripture we find that magistrates are called “gods” because in the execution of their office they act in God’s name. We see this kind of language being used when God sent Moses and Aaron to deliver His message to Pharaoh.
And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet. Thou shalt speak all that I command thee: and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh, that he send the children of Israel out of his land. (Ex. 7:1-2)
When the apostle Paul unwittingly cursed the High Priest of Israel, he was rightly called to account by them that stood by. Upon realizing to whom he spoke, Paul immediately repented of his unlawful speech. “I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people” (Acts 23:5). The interesting thing is that the passage Paul quoted there is taken out of Exodus 22:28, “thou shalt not revile the gods, nor the ruler of thy people.” In typical parallel fashion, this passage show us that sometimes “the gods” is a reference to them that rule in God’s name. The priesthood of Paul’s day was no exception to the term. After all, said that they did “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2).
But of course, this accommodation of language is strictly analogical. While Scripture does in fact call rulers “gods,” Scripture also shows that all such gods are accountable to the one true God Who created them and will ultimately judge them. In Psalm 82 the LORD threatens all rulers with severe punishment and destruction if they should judge unjustly.
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes. (vv 1, 2, 6)
For this reason even the great king Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the absolute supremacy of the LORD, saying, “Of a truth it is – that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings” (Dan. 2:47).
In a more familiar sense of the word, idols are also called gods in Scripture (Ex. 20:23; 1 Chron. 16:26), though not because there is any life or power in them. Rather they are called gods because men serve them and honor them as such. In Scripture, idols are visible mediums through which men attempt to worship the so called gods they represent. Some of the names of these gods are Asherah (1 Kings 18:19), Baal (Judges 3:7), Chemosh (Num. 21:29), Dagon (1 Sam. 5:2), Molech (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5), Jupiter, Murcurius (Acts 14:12), and Diana (Acts 19:35). However, since these deities owe their existence only to the imaginations of the hearts of men, Scripture equates them with the very idols made to represent them – “For all the gods of the people are idols” (1 Chron 16:26). In other words, the idol is the god itself.
The Bible is replete with references to the great disparity that exists between graven images, which are “the work of men’s hands” (Ps. 115:4),“vain customs of the people” (Jer. 10:3) and “a doctrine of vanities” (Jer. 10:8) on the one hand – and the Living and true God on the other hand. According to the Bible these idol-gods “are all the work of cunning men – but the LORD is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king” (Jer. 10:9-10). Moreover, the idol maker himself “is brutish in his knowledge” so that right along with the worshiper he is “confounded by the graven image” (Jer. 10:12). Why? Because “they that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them” (Ps. 135:18).
In his first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul reminds his readers “that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (8:4). But this was not to minimize the sinfulness or deny the dangers of practicing idolatry. Paul was not suggesting that idol-worship is somehow harmless and of no real consequence. Later on in his epistle Paul makes it clear that to sacrifice to idols is to sacrifice to demons through them.
What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. (1 Cor. 10:19-20)
For this reason, we also find in Scripture that the term god is applied to Satan, the prince of demons. To be clear, Satan is a god only in the sense that he exercises rule over blinded men who serve him at his will. Therefore, while he is called “the prince of this world” (Jn. 12:30; 14:31), “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), “the ruler of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12), and “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), we must remember that Satan’s rule is limited (Acts 26:18), temporary (Rev. 12:12; 20:1-3) and has been officially overthrown by the cross of Jesus Christ (Rev. 12:7-9; Lk. 10:18; Col. 2:16; Jn. 16:11; 1 Jn. 3:8). Nevertheless, by default Satan remains the god of “them which believe not” (2 Cor. 4:4).
But again, just as God promises the destruction of idols and wicked men, so too does He promise the final judgment of Satan himself. Because he is no god in truth or in power, Satan will not be able to resist the hand of God to destroy him (Rev. 20:10). In fact, his doom is so certain, Scripture tells us that the “everlasting fire” was originally “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). The importance of knowing and confessing in the one true God therefore, cannot possibly be overstated. It is no accident that the Belgic Confession begins with an uncompromising affirmation of God’s Unity. Christ himself placed it before all other considerations – and so must we.
One reason to emphasize such a point is to remind us that because there is only one God – all creatures must answer to Him. Our personal judgment on the last day will not be a split-decision. There is only one Mind and one Will that we must seek – and in the end – by which we will be saved or damned (Jn. 17:3; Jas. 2:19). Confessing in God’s Unity therefore is not just the only legitimate starting point, it is a point which we must never forget. “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD” (Deut. 6:4)!