The Deity of Christ and the First Table of the Law

One of the standard arguments for the deity of Christ runs as follows:

  1. The First Commandment demands that we worship no other gods besides the Lord God (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 6:13; Matt. 4:10).
  2. Jesus is (rightly) worshiped by his disciples (Matt. 14:33; 28:9; 28:17; Luke 24:52; Rev. 5:11-14).
  3. Therefore, the worship of Jesus must be the worship of the Lord God.

Since it’s very difficult to reject premise 2 while accepting the authority of the New Testament, some unitarians (those who deny the deity of Christ) concede the point but counter that worshiping Jesus doesn’t violate the First Commandment even though Jesus is a mere creature. They suggest that the commandment needs to be understood in the context of Ancient Near Eastern polytheism. What the commandment forbids is the worship of other gods in addition to the Lord God (specifically pagan gods such as Baal, Molech, etc.). The worship of Jesus doesn’t involve any such thing (so it is argued) because the one true God is being worshiped through Jesus, by God’s own designation. Jesus is God’s unique agent and mediator of salvation, and therefore the worship due to God for his works of salvation can be appropriately mediated by Jesus. In short, to worship Jesus is to worship God indirectly rather than directly. Jesus is the proper medium for the worship of God. But that doesn’t require us to say that Jesus is equal to God.

One difficulty with this response is that it neglects the close connection between the First and the Second Commandment. Both commandments are concerned with the proper worship of God, but in different respects. The First Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God only: no worship of false gods. The Second Commandment says, in effect, that we must worship the true God truly: no false worship of the true God. The paradigmatic case of the latter sin is worshiping God through creaturely images (cf. Deut. 4:15-17).

The Ten CommandmentsThe golden calf incident (Exod. 32:1-20) serves as an object lesson in false worship. Not only do the Israelites worship false gods (note the plurals in vv. 1 and 4) they also worship the true God falsely (note v. 5, where Aaron pathetically tries to redeem the idolatrous worship by turning it into “a feast to the Lord”; apparently his strategy was to make the worship of the golden calf an indirect worship of the Lord). However we interpret the thinking of Aaron and the Israelites here, it’s clear enough that the first two commandments are being violated. (Compare the later idolatry of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:25-33 which obviously parallels the incident in Exodus 32; in both cases the idolatrous image-worship is rationalized as Yahweh-worship.)

So how does this relate to the unitarian response? The unitarian position is that God is worshiped through Jesus. But on the unitarian view, Jesus is a mere creature (albeit one made in the image and likeness of God; Gen. 1:26-27). However exalted Jesus may be, this would still amount to worshiping God through a creaturely image. The fact that Jesus is described as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) only accentuates the problem on the unitarian reading of that phrase. Are we now permitted — commanded even — to worship God through a creaturely image, contrary to the Second Commandment?

The argument could be extended even to the Third and Fourth Commandments. The Third Commandment (Exod. 20:7) requires us to honor the name of the Lord. The name of the Lord is “Jealous” (Exod. 34:14) because he is jealous for his honor; he will not share his divine glory with another (Isa. 48:11). No one can profane or blaspheme the name of the Lord and live (Lev. 22:2; 22:32; 24:16). His name is holy; it is sanctified (literally “set apart”). And yet in the New Testament we discover that Jesus shares the name of the Lord (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:21; 9:28; Rom. 10:13). If Jesus were a mere man, a mere creature, would this not be a violation of the Third Commandment?

Likewise for the Fourth Commandment, according to which the Sabbath is to be honored as a day “to the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:10; 31:15; 35:2) because the Lord God himself “blessed the Sabbath and made it holy” (Exod. 20:11; cf. Gen. 2:3). The Sabbath is the Lord’s holy day (Isa. 58:13-14). And yet Jesus declares himself to be “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). Just imagine how that would have sounded to first-century Jewish ears, to those steeped in the Mosaic Law. If Jesus were a mere man, would his words not amount to a blasphemous disrespect for the true Lord of the Sabbath?

It seems then that if we interpret New Testament claims by and about Jesus through a unitarian lens, according to which he is a mere creature (even if a uniquely exalted one) who now serves as the medium for worship of the one true God, we’re being asked to violate the First and Second Commandments, if not the entire first table of the law.