The first of God's Ten Commandments is "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Does this mean that it's okay to have other gods so long as we remember that Yahweh is top God? Is this a command to keep Yahweh first in rank--as with Zeus in the pantheon?
The command does not mean that Yahweh just wants to be top God, but that we are to affirm him as the only God. The Hebrew word translated "before" can be translated "against" or "beside." There are no other gods next to Yahweh. So God is actually saying that we are to have no other gods "in addition to" him.
Yahweh alone is God. He speaks his proper name in Exodus 20, distinguishing himself from all other gods. He has no divine associates. He is not the chairman on a board of deities. Yahweh alone is God.
So this command obviously prohibits idolatry. But that was an ancient problem, right? We're certainly too sophisticated to bow down to a statue. Is idolatry a problem today, in our modern society?
Not only have recent decades brought an influx of world religions and philosophies to our shores, but there are subtler forms of idolatry. Your God is whatever or whomever has top priority in your life. Your God can be identified by asking two questions: "How do you spend you time?" and "What do you do with your money?"
An idol is whatever we prioritize ahead of God. Among the most popular American idols are materialism, workaholism, entertainment, sex, family, politics, and sports addiction. Within this list are things in which many people place their trust or devote their free time. A good percentage of one's income may go into some of these categories. On this list are categories that quite often distract from a deeper commitment to church.
Idolatry is not just bowing down to a statue. Idolatry is loving or putting trust in something, or someone, above God. It is being preoccupied with anything above the Lord.
While the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all morality, the first commandment is first because it's the foundation of all the others. Rick Atchley has pointed out that "as our society's belief in God as Creator has declined, murder has become epidemic" (Sinai Summit, p. 139). This could also be said in regard to rampant violation of the other commandments. Have not adultery, theft, and rebellion against parents also reached epidemic proportions? Is it mere coincidence that as American society becomes more secular these sins become more prevalent?
People can't be consistently moral while disregarding the command to put God first. Any attempt at morality without God will be subjective and inconsistent---subject to change with the whims of a self-indulgent society. The standard for determining what is moral will be left to fallible humans who will never come to a concensus.
True morality must be grounded in a relationship with God. So as a prelude to the Ten Commandments, God says, "I am Yahweh, your God who brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 20:2). So the commands are given in the context of a relationship---a covenant relationship with the God who redeemed his people. The relationship is established on the initiative of divine grace.
People won't be motivated to obey God until they are persuaded of his offer to extend merciful loving-kindness. Rules mean nothing apart from the context of relationship. So the gospel proclamation doesn't begin with what we must do, but with the announcement of what God has done for us in Christ. Transformation occurs, not as a mere attempt at adhering to the rules, but on the basis of entering a relationship. Only then do the rules start to make sense.