Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part I
Introduction: The eighteen-part series: Idolatry: Definition and Significance addresses practical implications of this far-reaching approach to life. Are there idolaters now, and if so what are their characteristics? Is idolatry simply an Old Testament concept or does it have relevance for believers now? These questions hit home. This series is intended to answer those questions.
Paul closes chapter 11 of the book of Romans with praise to the triune God:
v.33: Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and his paths beyond tracing out!
v.34: Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
v.35: Who has ever given to God that he should repay him?
v.36: For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
In these verses, Paul contemplates God’s saving and enabling grace after an exhaustive and exciting look into the mind and ways of God in chapters 1-8 and 9-11. He is awe-struck and amazed much in the same way as when he contemplated God’s love in Ephesians 3:17-21. The triad of God’s love, wisdom, and power are linked to and with the gospel. In the passages above Paul reflected not only on God’s power but on His wisdom and knowledge to save who He did (both Jew and Gentile) and how He did it (the cross). Romans 11:36 teaches that the triune God is the Source (from Him), the Agent (through Him), and the Goal (to Him) of salvation. Salvation is an Intratrinitarian activity (Eph. 2:18; 3:12). It is through the mercy of the Triune God that all kinds of people (both Jew and Gentile) living throughout the entire world are saved. Paul had explained that God saved a people, Gentiles, for himself through the disobedience of one people, the Jews (Romans 9:32-33; 11:25-27). He taught that God had been true to His promise of bringing all Israel (Jew and Gentile; see Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 3:27-29) into His kingdom (see Ephesians 2:11-15).
What do the above passages have to do with idolatry? Everything! To answer properly we begin at the beginning, in the Garden of Eden. With Adam’s sin, there was a marked change – a total reordering of man’s existence. His view of God, himself, others, and his environment were radically changed forever. Initially, Adam and Eve were created image bearers of God and placed in God’s presence (Genesis 2:8, 15). Vertically (to God) and horizontally (to each other), they thought God’s thoughts, desired what God desired, and acted in sync with God’s will. There was no competition with God or each other. Self was properly in the picture. Adam was God’s representative as his prophet (to declare truth), priest (to give exclusive devotion to God), and king (to subdue and rule for God’s glory what God had graciously given him).
In the Garden, Adam acted as if he designed his own world. He listened to another counselor, the father of lies (John 8:44). Adam “created” a virtual reality in which he functioned as if everything revolved around him. Self and self-pleasing became the modus operandi of Adam and Eve and their posterity. After sin and God’s judgment, mankind became God’s enemy. God was alienated from mankind and mankind from God. Subsequently everyone born of ordinary generation is a rebel with patterned, habituation for self, to self, and by self. In other words, fallen man was born an idolater. He did have to learn how to be one. Until saved, he perfected his idolatrous self-pleasing in thoughts, desires, and actions.
Man considered himself “the measure of all things.” This phrase is attributed to the Greek philosopher Protagoras and is interpreted to mean that truth is relative and the individual, not God or a god, is the ultimate source of value. Such it was with Adam. Adam was created to function as a prophet, priest, and king under God’s headship for God’s glory and mankind’s benefit. However, Adam chose to take to himself the role of God, seemingly to know good and evil. He disobeyed in order to achieve his end. He positioned himself as the determiner of truth rather than acting on the truth that God set before him in the Garden (Genesis 2:15-17).
Adam became a god to himself. He was the idol maker and idol worshipper – he was the idol. He lived the lie. He attempted to function as if he was God. He attempted to replace God. Such arrogance and yet ignorance! Adam inverted Romans 11:36. Rather than all things for, through, and to God, Adam functioned as all things where for, through, and to Adam. However, when faced with Eve he hid (fig leaves were his protection: Genesis 3:7). When faced with God’s call, he ran and hid (Genesis 3:8-13). Both efforts were fruitless and foolish. Such is the plight of fallen man and so it is with idol- makers and idol-worshippers. Self-worship has these characteristics: it is using other persons for one’s own selfish gain; it is competing with God; and it is disastrous (Proverbs 5:21-23; 8:36; 13:15b; 26:11). So we begin the series: Idolatry: Definition and Significance in the New Testament.
1. How did Adam function as the idol, idol-maker and idol-worshipper?
2. How did Adam judge God and himself? What were the results?
3. Serving self takes many forms. What form did it take in Adam’s life and what form does it take in your life?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part II
Continuing our series, Idolatry: Definition and Significance, we are faced with several questions when we define idolatry. Idolatry is sin but is every sin idolatrous? What is the essence of idolatry? The first blog spelled out the origin of sin and sinners – Adam’s sin and God’s judgment. Adam’s sin was the first human sin. He sought God’s place as the final judge for his actions. Adam was a perfect being in a perfect environment in right relationship to God. Amazing! Apparently wanting to be like God motivated Adam to please and trust self in place of full devotion and allegiance to God.
One can rightly say that idolatry is functioning as if one can unseat God. Pride is involved but we must be careful. The word pride is a common term and often overworked term. The word pride conveys a sinful manner of thinking and wanting about self in relation to God and others. It is powerfully linked idolatry. The concept of idolatry is powerful and yet complex. Theologically idolatry is the ultimate expression of unfaithfulness to God. The God of the heavens and the earth is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. As such He is trustworthy. God does not abandon His promises or His people. Therefore, He can and should be worshipped, glorified, trusted, and loved. In fact, He expects and deserves these expressions of covenantal faithfulness from His people. For that reason alone idolatry is the occasion for severe divine punishment (see Lev. 26:14-46 especially verses 27-33; Num. 33:51-56; Deut. 28:15-24, 58-63, and 29:16-29).
The portrayal of the kings in 1 and 2 Kings is telling. Kings were assessed as good or bad on religious grounds. Those kings who fostered idolatry “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” There were no good kings in the Northern kingdom which fell some 200 years prior to the Southern kingdom. The history of Israel and Judah can be summarized in part by the phrase: as the king goes so goes the people. In a real sense bad kings “caused” Israel to sin via idolatry thus provoking the anger of the Lord (1Kings 12:25-33; 14:14-16; 16:26-27). There were serious consequences for idolatry. Israel was exiled because of her idolatry (Psalm 79:5; Isaiah 1:2-9; 37:18-20; 40:18-20; 44:9-20; Jeremiah 2:5, 8, 23, 25; 10:1-10; 14:22). God does not share His glory with another or bless His competition (Isaiah 42:6-8; 48:8-11). He judged and punished His people as well as His enemies (Judges 2:1-3; Nahum 1:2; Deuteronomy 6:14-15; Psalm 78:58-64).
The theological ground for the judgment of idolatry is God’s jealousy (see Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:8-10; Exodus 34:14). God through Moses codified the moral law that is written in every person’s heart (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 2:14-15). One paraphrases of this truth is: “I am God, you are not; I deserve and demand worship, you do not; I am Creator and Controller. You are the creature and dependent on me.” In Exodus 20:5-6, God declares himself to be a jealous God. He protects himself and His people. The term for jealous (qana) is used some 90 times in the Old Testament. It indicates a strong desire of or for something. The idea of a want and even a demand is embedded in the term. God is speaking covenantally. He has betrothed himself to Israel in marriage. God is Israel’s husband (Isaiah 54:5; Jeremiah 3:14; 31:32; Ezekiel 16:32; Hosea 2:16-17). Since God is Israel’s husband, idolatry is spiritual adultery (Exodus 34:15-17; Jeremiah 3:19-20; Ezekiel 5:13; 8:3, 5; 16:38, 42; 23:25). Israel wanted something that was not hers AND she did not want what was freely given to her – God. Joshua repeated the fact that God would not tolerate idolatry (Joshua 24:19-23). God does vindicate his name as He should (Ezekiel 39:25; Zephaniah 3:8). You would expect anything less from the Creator and Controller of the universe.
There is no more serious charge against anyone than idolatry. Therefore the series Idolatry: Definition and Significance is appropriate. Idolatry and idolater attack the very nature of God and attempts to undercut His existence, His God-ness, His power, and His wisdom. Further, it attacks the very nature of man and God’s creational design for and of him. It is satanic in nature and harkens one back into Satan’s family and kingdom. Every person, at some point and time of existence, was a member of Satan’s family and kingdom. He learned the art of idol-making and idol-worship and regularly practices it until there is a marked, radical inner-man change, called regeneration.
1. What does idolatry teach you about God?
2. What does it teach you about yourself?
3. What reasons do you have for worshiping something or someone else other than God?
4. What makes God non-worshipful in your eyes?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part III
Continuing in our study: Idolatry: Definition and Significance, please remember, as I noted earlier, that the Triune God is a jealous God, idolatry is the ultimate expression of unfaithfulness to God, and it requires severe punishment by God. In the last blog we briefly examined idolatry in the Old Testament. Idolatry is spiritual adultery. It begins in the heart (inner man) and usually has outer-man expressions. It is a whole-person activity of thoughts, desires, and actions. These activities are expressed in both the inner man (the heart) and can be expressed in the visible, physical body. Idolatry arises from a person’s wrong view of God and himself. Therefore, it is relational, both vertical and horizontal.
Judaism and monotheism were fundamental to Israel’s life and faith (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). The Lord God is one and He is to be loved and worshiped accordingly. Worship of one God stood in marked contrast to the multiplicity of gods in Canaan and elsewhere (Judges 2:11-13). Per God’s creational design, man is a religious, worshiping being and functions from the inside-out – from his heart (Proverbs 4:7, 23). All worship proceeds from the heart (root) with fruit of varying kinds and in varying degrees. The idol-worshiper himself has assigned the task of defining worship – its object and its means – to himself! The idol worshiper is in fact the idol! He sues objects, people, and even God for his own glory and pleasure. Idolatry: definition and significance is an attempt to fully understand the bad and new good news.
Idolatry flows from a two-fold distortion: of man’s creational design and of God – who He is. As a worshiping, religious being, man was created to worship God and enjoy being in His presence forever. Post-fall, man’s view of God and himself radically changed. From fallen man’s perspective, he is a “wanter,” an expect-or, and a “deserver” with all the rights and privileges associated with this estate. Ignorantly and arrogantly man the idolater attempts to steal from God.
How does the concept of idolatry in the New Testament connect with that in the Old Testament? The theme of judgment for idolatry and on idolaters is also widespread in the New Testament. Most people in the New Testament and in the present day don’t bow and worship physical idols or images (physical objects). A brief review of the gospels shows that Israel did not involve herself in idolatry as did her ancestors depicted in the Old Testament. There is little reference to idol worship in the gospels. Yet Matthew 13 and Matthew 15/Mark 7 with their references to Isaiah 6:9-10 and 29:13, contain clear teaching regarding idolatry. These chapters indicate that idolatry in some form was alive and well in the New Testament. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Idol worship is in the very least an error in judgment and devotion and is vanity. Turning from idols to God was one mark of true conversion – the other two marks were serving God and waiting for Christ’s return (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Later in the same letter, Paul confirms the teaching that idolatry is not simply a sin but a defining feature of paganism (4:3-5).
Idolatry forms part of a triad of sins whose undercurrent is self-pleasing. Paul mentions these three sins in 1 Corinthians 6:18, 10:14, and 1Timothy 6:10-11: sexual immorality, idolatry, and greed. The believer is to flee them by running to God. Running to God means denying self. It means understanding, acknowledging, and acting on the truth that God is God and the idolater is not. Later I continue to spell out what “turning from” and “turning to” looks like and its motivation. Paul, as did James, taught that breaking one commandment is equal to breaking all of them (Romans 2:1-11; James 2:8-11). Idolatry or self-worship is breaking all the commandments (Romans 1:18-32). It is competition with God.
In Romans 2:22 Paul assumed that the Jews opposed idols and hated idolatry. This opposition was a defining boundary for believers. Standing for something often clarifies what someone stands against. This dynamic is set within a person’s conception of self – his identity, origin, destiny, purpose, AND his view of God – His person, work, and goal. Considered in those terms, idolatry is a whole-person activity – thoughts, desires, and actions – in which the person gives himself to something or someone other than God. He expects to get thereby using the other person or object. That someone or thing claims his loyalty, trust, allegiance, and worship.
What world/reality have you attempted to create based on who you are and who God is?
2. How have you pursued life in that reality?
3. What have been the results?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part IV
In our study: idolatry: definition and significance, I have reviewed several issues under the rubric of idolatry. Idolatry is a theological issue of utmost importance. It began in the Garden when Adam set himself up as the final arbiter of two counsels: God’s and Satan’s. He assumed he was in control. Knowing good and evil as God does was impossible but obviously Adam determined it was worth reaching for. Subsequently all mankind became getters. In essence, man functionally inverted Romans 11:36: all things are for him, through him, and by him.
Man makes idols in his own image and as he perceives God or a god. Idols are made to represent God (or a god) but actually represent the idol-maker. What man makes with his hands is a reflection and manifestation of his heart. Idols express the thoughts and desires of man. Man competes with God when he does that. After the fall man became a self-truster and self-worshiper. Isaiah confirms these facts as well as the futility of idols and idol-making (Isa. 2:8-22; 30:22; 31:6-7; 40:19-20; 44:9-20). Idolatry and pride are inextricably linked. Both idolatry and pride are whole-person activities. The proud person evaluates himself differently than God does and desires to have others, and perhaps God, view him in the same light as he views himself. Actions follow this self-evaluation. Pride then is a wrong way of thinking about God, self, and others. The proud man is actually the idol as well the idol-maker – he worships himself and “creates” in his image.
As I have written, idolatry is not new. It was practiced in ancient times. There is no period in Hebrew history when the people were free from idolatry. Abraham came from a polytheistic family (Genesis 11:26-32; Joshua 24:2, 14, 23-24). Laban had images which Rachel stole (31:19, 30 32, 34-35; 35:2).
Prohibition against idolatry was expressed in the Ten Commandments even as the Israelites worshiped idols in Egypt. They did not give them up when they were freed from physical bondage. The Israelites left Egypt but Egypt and her influence did not leave them. They continued in spiritual bondage – to self (Joshua 24:14; Ezekiel 20:8-18; 23:3-8). In fact, the first generation (except Joshua and Caleb) which left Egypt was actually one with Egypt. They did not see the Promised Land. Idolatry was part and parcel of fallen man including God’s covenant people Israel. To worship idols was to go-a-whoring – it was spiritual adultery (Exodus 34:15-16; Hosea 1:2; 4:10-14; 9:1,10; Jeremiah 2:20; 3:1; Ezekiel 16:15-17; 23:1-48). According to Exodus 22:20 the idolater must be destroyed. God is a jealous God and was and is serious about protecting His name (see the third commandment)!
Interestingly, the Old Testament says little about idolatry during the reign of King David. It did flourish during King Saul’s reign (1 Samuel 13:13-14; 15:22-23) and King Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 11:1-13). With Saul, the picture of idolatry takes on a new perspective. In 1 Samuel 13 Saul was fearful and took matters into his own hands failing to wait upon Samuel. He functioned as priest and Yahweh took the kingship from him (13:6-10, 13-14). In chapter 15 he attacked the Amalekites but failed to carry out God’s instructions. God granted him victory in spite of himself. Evidence of his self-pleasing was demonstrated by building a monument for himself as an act of homage (v.12) and failing to totally destroy God’s enemies (v.3, 8-9). Saul was his own man for his own purposes on both occasions. God, through Samuel, equated Saul’s lack of obedience to divination and idolatry (15:22-23).
In Solomon’s case he “took on many wives.” 1 Kings 11:1 reported one reason for this action – “his love for them.” This previous man of wisdom acted as the fool as he was interested only in self. David in contradistinction to Saul and Solomon was a man after God’s own heart – he was not a patterned idolater (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 7:46; 13:22). The lesser David pointed to the greater David and Messiah. Jesus Christ. Jesus came to do His Father’s will (John 4:31-34). He was not a self-pleaser. He did not worship Himself and use others for that purpose. Consider: Jesus by pleasing His Father actually pleased Himself. Rightly understood, pleasing-self God’s way is through pleasing the Triune God simply because God is God. These are important distinctions as we continue our study: idolatry: definition and significance.
1. The Old Testament has broadened our understanding of idolatry. Study 1 Samuel 15:22-23 and determine how Saul honored himself by “his obedience.”
2. Write out how 1 Samuel 15:22-23 fit with Amos 5:21-24; Hosea. 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:11-18; Jeremiah 6:20; 7:22-23; Matthew 9:13; 12:7?
3. Read Psalms. 40:6-8 and 51:16-17 and contrast them with the passages in #2: how do they apply to idolatry?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part V
In our study: idolatry: definition and significance, it is important to note that no matter how idolatry is defined, it is the result of the corruption of man’s heart. It is a family and kingdom problem of which all the children of Adam are affected. With Adam’s sin and God’s judgment all mankind became members of Satan’s family and kingdom. Members of that kingdom are characterized by darkness and deadness which is manifested as self-pleasing and self-worship.
Self-pleasing has many different forms as each person distorts God’s creational design for man. These facts raise several questions. When did idolatry begin? Is idolatry alive and well today? If so, what form does it take, how serious is it, and what should a believer do?
Today there are several definitions given for idolatry and idols. There is general agreement that the Old Testament speaks of “physical idolatry.” The worship of physical idols was prominent throughout all civilizations including Israel. However, these objects were fashioned in man’s heart. Thus, idolatry is a heart problem. The object is less important than the heart from which it flowed. In our brief review of idolatry we determined from Scripture that idolatry is a major theological issue. God’s view and subsequent judgment of it flows from God’s jealousy. God is zealous to protect himself, His covenant relationship with His people, and His people (Deuteronomy 4:24; Exodus 20:1-5; 34:14).
In the Garden Satan attacked God focusing on His jealousy and covenantal faithfulness. He attempted to place God’s jealousy in a “bad light.” He knew God “protected His turf” which happened to be the world and everything in it. Satan charged God with selfishness. He spoke falsehood to Eve when he told her that God wanted no competition (Genesis 3:5). Adam and Eve were enticed to be in competition with God. Satan knew first hand that God did not bless His competition (Isaiah 42:8; 46:9; 48:8-11; also see James 2:19: demons knew that Jesus was the Son of God but did not worship Him). In the Garden, Adam weighed the two counsels and became an arbiter of what was placed before him. Instead of functioning as a godly prophet, he reinterpreted himself, his situation, and God through the lens of Satan’s counsel rather than through God’s revelation, Adam, ignorantly and arrogantly, set out on his own.
Adam fell and with him all of mankind. His posterity would be forever self-pleasers by nature and enemies of God unless something radical and supernatural occurred in and to them. In Genesis 3:15 we read of God’s jealousy. There God promised to send the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who did not fail to be covenantally faithful. He stayed the course of pleasing His Father in lieu of self-pleasing; He rejected Satan’s and other’s counsel (Matthew 4: 1-11; Luke 4:1-12; and Matthew 16:23).
Looking at the Old Testament we learned that idolatry, no matter its expression, is spiritual adultery. Such is one aspect of idolatry: definition and significance. It seeks to get for one’s own satisfaction. Functionally, idolatry is a strong statement that God and a relationship with Him are not satisfactory.
Idolatry is giving oneself to oneself. The idolater gives attention to something outside of him in order to get something for himself. Moreover, a reading of the First and Second Commandments, especially the latter part of the Second Commandment, indicates that idolatry is hatred of and for God. Idolatry is law-breaking – it is the breaking of all the commandments. It attempts to set aside God’s law and standard for a person’s thoughts, desires, and actions. It functionally substitutes God’s law for a self-made law thereby setting aside God’s standard. This latter point will be significant as we look into the gospels regarding idolatry.
Idolatry is and results in a patterned mindset and lifestyle. It is living the lie that this is the idolater’s world and he is on the throne. The energy expended in attempting to stay on the idolater’s would-be-throne is enormous and is doomed to failure (Proverbs 5:21-22; 8:34-36; 13:15b; 26:11). The idolater uses objects, people, and things to get. He may even use God! Idolatry is getting for self by self at the expense of God and others. It is a reversal of Romans 11:36 (see first blog) and of Matthew 22:37-40.
Patterned idolatry is hypocrisy if one is a Christian. The Christian publicly and privately has given himself to God – he is united with Christ by the Holy Spirit who dwells in him. The Bible calls all men to single-hearted devotion to God. Only the believer can do that (Matt. 5:8; 6:24; 22:37-40; 23:25, 27, 29; Rom. 8:5-8). Claiming to be a Christian and practicing self-trusting is hypocrisy. Over the next few blogs I will explore the concept of idolatry in the gospels and then the epistles.
1. Review the main points above. Do you agree or disagree? Give reasons.
2. Write out your view of God and yourself.
3. When is it easy to trust self and for what reasons?
4. When is it hard to trust God and for what reasons?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part VI
The Gospel of Matthew: part A
We continue our study: idolatry: definition and significance, by moving into the New Testament. What does the New Testament teach regarding idolatry? How does the Old Testament concept of idol worship come over into the New Testament? The questions imply that it does – how so?
God declared that Israel was different from all other nations and other nations too notice! (Deuteronomy 4:5-8; 7:6-11; 9:1-6; 10:14-17). Israel took pride in that fact but to their detriment (see Romans 2:1-3:18). A constant theme runs throughout Israel’s history. They rejected and killed the prophets and they crucified God the Son, the ultimate Prophet (Matthew 21:33-46; 23:29-39/Luke 13:34-35; Psalm 118:22-23; Acts 2:22f; 4:25ff). The majority of the Israelites at the time of Jesus were as sinful as her ancestors rejecting the Triune God. They followed the pattern of the first Adam: covenantal unfaithfulness (“I want”) in lieu of pleasing God. Were they idolaters? If they were not how was it possible for them to have escaped the self-pleasing pattern of idolatry? If they were idolaters, what did they do, think, and desire and how was their idolatry expressed? These questions force the issue: idolatry: definition and significance.
In the New Testament reference to idols (eidolon and derivatives), idolatry (eidololatreia), and idolaters (idololatres) occur about 35 times, never in the gospels, and only five occurrences are recorded in Acts (7:41; 15:20, 29; 17:16; 21:25). The root of these words indicates seeing and perceiving. Fallen man, even saved ones, doesn’t see clearly – they have eyes but do not see (Matthew 13:11-15). They know God but even the believer does not know him as he ought. But the believer is growing in the proper knowledge of who God is and who he is.
The apparent silence of the gospels should not be misinterpreted. If idolatry is a whole-person, inside-out activity and if idolatry is trusting, worshiping, having allegiance to, and being devoted to something or someone other than the Triune God, then it is logical and theological correct to conclude that idolaters and idolatry persist until Christ returns. When Jesus returns, idolatry will end; there will be no more idolaters (Isaiah 2:18; Micah 5:13; Zephaniah 2:11; Zechariah. 13:2; Psalm 97:1-6). There are no idolaters in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:8).
The gospels tell us how Jesus understood and wants us to understand the idolatry passages in the Old Testament. We will begin in Matthew’s gospel: 4:10; 5:3, 8; 6:24 (Luke 16:13); 12:38-42/16:1-4; 13:1-23; 15:1-23. At Jesus’ baptism He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and received God’s blessing and approval. He then was led by the same Holy Spirit into the wilderness (3:15-17; 4:1). Satan, against all hope and human logic, suggested that Jesus worship him. Satan was hoping to “make” Jesus an idolater as he did with the first Adam in the Garden. Unlike the first Adam, Jesus responded with biblical truth. Worship is due God alone (Deuteronomy 6:13). Jesus had one goal in coming to earth: to please His Father (Matthew 26:39; John 4:31-34; 5:19-20, 30). Jesus did not worship himself or others. He did not use others or God for His own gain. He had a proper vertical reference which motivated Him to please His Father and save a people (Hebrews 12:1-3). He was not an idolater.
Matthew 5 opens with Jesus on a mountain preaching and teaching. This scene pictures Jesus’ inaugural sermon outside of the temple area. In the sermon ( called the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus continues to answer the question of how mankind will be allowed to enter into God’s presence. He was presenting God’s divine redemptive remedy for his people. The people did not understand.
The way is the Way, Jesus Christ (John 14:6). In the Way, the believer is blessed/favored by God. As a result, he will be poor in spirit (5:3) and conversely rich in the Holy Spirit. He will be pure in heart (5:8) having a single allegiance and devotion to God (Psalm 15:1; 24:3-4). David addressed the issue of how the unclean (sinner) can mingle with the clean (God). He can’t so God cleanses him.
Actually, Jesus is describing himself and those who come after Him. Jesus draws the line in the sand so to speak: trust, please, and worship God or self. Follow Me by denying yourself YOU (Matthew10:32-38; 16:24; Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 9:23; 14:26; John 12:23-26). Self is the problem and idolatry is the epitome of self-worship! Idolatry: definition and significance is serious!
Later in the sermon Jesus contrasted God-pleasing with self-pleasing: no one can serve two masters – it is impossible (Matthew 6:24). Jesus taught that God wants you – all of you. Idolatry attacks this call and proclaims that God is not worthy of the person’s devotion. Rather the person is worthy thereby attempting to push God off His throne or share it with Him. Job knew the pull to worship self through things (Job 31:24-28). In both Matthew 6:24 and Job 31, the Bible warned against wealth as the person’s tool to climb the ladder of “success.” Success was always defined the way of the idolater. Wealth and possessions are not the problem – the person is. Using wealth (or any object or person including God) to get is claiming that the Triune God is not worthy to be trusted, devoted to, and worshiped. Rather the idolater is!
1. As you read the gospel of Matthew focus on the passages above and look for a theme. What is it?
2. One word that pictures idolatry is motivation. Since the fall there are only two ways to live: what are they? See Proverbs 3:5-8; 4:18-19.
3. What makes it easy to please self rather than please God?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part VII
The Gospel of Matthew: part B
In our study, idolatry: definition and significance, we need to continue to mine the depths of the gospels. To reiterate, the gospels tell us how Jesus understood and wants us to understand the idolatry passages in the Old Testament. Therefore, we continue our study in the gospel of Matthew by looking at Matthew 12:38-42/16:1-4; 13:1-23; and 15:1-21. Chapter 12 records portions of the on-going debate with and challenge of Jesus by the religious leaders. Jesus had completed His refutation of the Pharisees’ charge that He cast out demons by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:22-29: Luke 11:16). Totally defeated, nonetheless, the scribes and the Pharisees asked and perhaps demanded a sign from Jesus. They wanted Jesus to prove Himself but in actually they hated Jesus (12:24; 27:18; John 1:4-10). How many signs would be enough to meet their satisfaction (1 Corinthians 1:22)? They saw Jesus and His works with their physical eyes but they were spiritually blind.
Matthew records Jesus’ response in 12:38-42. Jesus acknowledged the fact of the request for a sign but He gave the origin of that request. Jesus grouped the spiritual leaders and their followers under the epithet of an evil and adulterous generation. They were morally corrupt and unfaithful. Perhaps the people did not have physical objects as idols. But Jesus equated them with all other idolaters. The people had changed the form of their idolatry but their heart was still far from God (Matthew 15:7-9). They had broken their marriage vow which bound them to God (Psalm 73:27; Isaiah 50:1; 57:3ff; 62:5; Jeremiah 3:8, 19-20; 13:27; 31:32; Ezekiel 16:32, 35f; 23:27; Hosea 2:1; James 4:4; Revelation 2:20).
In Matthew 16:1-4, Matthew recorded a conversation between Jesus and the spiritual leader. Again the leaders asked for a sign on the occasion of one of Jesus’ miracles (the feeding of the four thousand (15:29-39). In contrast to Matthew 12:38-42, Matthew exposed the motivation of the spiritual leaders. Arrogantly and ignorantly, they were tempting Jesus. Jesus responded using the same words as in Matthew 12:39: you wicked and adulterous generation (Matthew 16:4). Jesus explained His words in verses 2-3. He described the leaders and their followers as having a love-affair with the world for self-interest and gain. They lived by the physical senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, and feel without a proper interpretative grid of biblical truth. They could tell the weather by looking at the sky but did not comprehend the times (see John 7:24; 8:15).
Their senses were trained by non-saving faith. They walked by sight and not by saving faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). They were sinfully sensual creatures like Esau (Gen. 25:29-34). The message of John the Baptist and Jesus was repent and believe the kingdom of God was here (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15). This was a time for repentance and they were not on board. Why? It was because they were idolaters. They followed their forefathers’ patterned view of self, God, and the world.
Using the motif of contrasts, Matthew contrasted features the religious leaders and Jesus in terms of compassion or lack of it, teaching, and authority. Jesus was a God pleaser par excellence and the people of the day were self-pleasers. Jesus’ call separated idolaters from lovers of God.
In both passages of Matthew (12:38-42; 16:1-4), the Pharisees via a question demanded that Jesus give them proof through physical means –a miraculous sign, preferably from the sky/heavens. Jesus did not fit their view of what a messiah should look like and do. He should be someone who would relieve their physical problems including the yoke of Roman domination. Jesus’ response to the leaders addressed the heart of the matter – their hearts and self-worship. Such is the importance of idolatry: definition and significance.
The terms wicked and adulterous generation also have a reference to Hosea 3:1. The first coming of Jesus illustrated in living color God’s love of unfaithful is Israel as Hosea demonstrated to unfaithful, adulterous, and idolatrous Gomer (11:1; 14:4). First-century Israel followed the pattern of adultery and idolatry of their ancestors. First century Israel did not deserve another response. They had one recorded in the Old Testament – the sign of Jonah. The sign of Jonah pointed to Jesus’ resurrection. Both this generation and previous ones forsook the God of their youth and were unfaithful to their spiritual husband, God.
The majority of the Israelites of Jesus’ day were of the same mold as their ancestors – “me-first” people living by a “now” philosophy of life based on the senses and human reasoning – sinful sensual lifestyle. Biblical truth was not their interpretative grid. The people interpreted life (God’s providence) through their senses unaided by biblical truth. They were too busy getting rather than trusting, loving, and enjoying the triune eternal God who had pledged his covenant loyalty to them in spite of them.
1. What sign are you looking for to validate who you are and what you do?
2. What is your guide: feelings, experience, and or your own reasoning separated from biblical truth?
3. How have you guarded your heart and from what (see Proverbs 4:23)?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part VIII
The Gospel of Matthew, part C
The last verses of the 12 chapter of Matthew are pertinent to the discussion: Idolatry: Definition and Significance.
v.48: He replied to them: Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”
v.49: Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”
v.50: For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matthew 12:48-50
These passages summarize God’s approach to idolatry and the idolater. The passages indicate that neutrality is impossible. A person is for or against God. Jesus is not simply speaking of acts but of thoughts and desires. He is speaking of heart devotion and allegiance to God. This begins in the heart and moves outward away from self and toward God. Spiritual adultery – idolatry – is allegiance to self. It begins in the heart and moves to others for self in order to get.
Matthew 13 is a well-known chapter. It is the chapter of parables focusing on the knowledge of the kingdom of God. Jesus began with the parable of the Sower. In verses 10-15 Jesus answered the disciples’ question on his use of parables. He quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10 (Matthew 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40). Isaiah was addressing a rebellious, idolatrous nation. He ministered in Judah at a time when God brought judgment on the people via Assyrian conquest and he prophesied about the Babylonian exile. Judgment was coming to this idolatrous nation. They neither feared God nor walked in His ways. Self came first.
Jesus equates the reason for the soon-to-be judgment, including exile, of present Israel with the previous judgment that Israel experienced in Isaiah’s day: hardness of heart. Israel as a nation throughout the ages has been adulterous and idolatrous. Israel in Isaiah’s time and in Christ’s time was spiritually blind, arrogant, and ignorant. Israel’s history has been marked by the refusal to listen to the prophets and by idol worship. They failed to listen, to learn, and to love. Self took center stage. They had “suprasensual blindness.” What they took in by their senses they did not interpret God’s way by His truth for His glory. The physical, material realm was the major sphere of existence for them. They looked for physical healing and physical deliverance by a physical king who acted like a king according to their own standard. Spirituality fit their mold of getting. They asked what God could do for them based on what they did and did not do. Yet, they were in their own spiritual wilderness. They had no true spiritual eyes because their hearts were far from God (see Matthew 15, the subject of the next blog which quotes Isaiah 29:13; Malachi 2:2). They were self-focused.
There is a unity in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus, as the restored Son Israel and the soon-to-be exalted Christ, gathers, feeds, and restores His people. He saves them from themselves to God for God by the Holy Spirit Jesus calls for full heart devotion (Matthew 5:3, 8). Israel’s trust was in the now, physical, material, and in good feelings. Their trust and resultant activity depended on their logic and understanding divorced from God’s truth. Self took center stage individually and corporately. Such it is with unbelievers and their calloused hearts; sadly, believers can function in the same manner.
The picture was clearer when Jesus’ came onto the scene. By His Person, His teaching, and His actions Jesus exposed the idolatry of the people. Israel was His people but they rejected him (John 1:4-9).
God deserves the full devotion of every one of His people. And He deserves all of every one of His children in terms of their thoughts, desires, and actions. He deserves the whole person. Christianity is a comprehensive religion and way of life. It is not simply knowledge as important as that is. It constitutes whole-person devotion to God. There is no middle ground: you are either with Christ or against Him (Matthew 10:32-33; Mark 8:34-35). Holding on to things and people in competition to full allegiance to God is idolatry. The consequences are costly. God does not bless His competition and he will not give or even share His glory with anyone (Isaiah 42:8; 46:9; 48:11).
The only person to give himself totally to God was Jesus. His goal was to please His Father which He did before, at, and after the cross. That same Jesus calls His people to deny self, take up their cross, and follow him (six times in the gospels: Matthew 10:32-38; 16:26; Mark 8:34-9:1; Luke 9:23; 14:24; John 12:25). The believer divests himself of self. He may be “wrapped up” in himself via academic achievement (brains); bucks including possessions; brawn meaning physical strength and authority; and or beauty to mention just a few activities. These are what I call I gotta haves. These are tools or activities that the person uses to get what he wants for self. He is the idol maker, the idol-worshiper, and the idol itself. Such it is with idolatry: definition and significance. None of the things mentioned are necessarily wrong in themselves. When self takes center stage, the person is a functioning idolater.
1. Neutrality is impossible for the believer. What is your response?
2. What is it that you want more than you want to love God and love neighbor?
3. What makes it so important and what makes pleasing so unimportant?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part IX
The Gospel of Matthew: part D
We continue our study: idolatry: definition and significance by continuing in the gospel of Matthew. Chapter 15 of Matthew’s gospel gives important insight for understanding the Holy Spirit’s teaching regarding idolatry. The chapter begins with a question by the Pharisees (15:1). They wanted to know why Jesus allowed lawbreaking. The laws that they referred was the tradition of the elders (15:2: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat?”). Jesus responded by drawing a line in the sand in terms of lawmaking and lawbreaking (15:3). He asked the leaders why they broke God’s law while at the same time claiming to be lawkeepers par excellence: Jesus replied: And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”). Jesus’s question moved to the heart of the matter – the heart.
Chapter 15 juxtaposed two contrasting views of lawkeeping and the power to keep the law. Jesus contrasted lawkeeping that is done according to God’s law vs. man’s law. Jesus also contrasted lawkeeping that is done in a person’s own strength vs. law-keeping done in another’s strength. This contrast takes us back in the Garden (Genesis 3). Like Adam in the Garden, Israel’s leaders agreed that lawkeeping was important. Unlike Adam, they agreed that another physical exile was to be avoided at all costs. They did not want to return to Babylon. They understood that lawbreaking was the problem. But they failed to understand the reasons for the exile. The reasons for the exile were the same reasons that judgment would befall the present generation in Israel (Jerusalem was found wanting and non-repented and was judged in 70 A.D.). Israel followed the pattern of their forefathers throughout the ages. The present generation had no use for spiritual rescue and a “spiritual” Messiah.” Their worship was of self through the worship of something other than God. They had been and were idolaters.
The religious leaders engaged in lawkeeping but according to their standard. These leaders were determined to cleanse themselves. They developed their own laws which were handed down through generations. The origin of the term Pharisee is to separate for the purpose of avoiding contamination. Jesus, in Matthew 15 (see Mark 7), termed these rabbinic laws tradition. Jesus charged the religious leaders with nullifying God’s commands in favor of tradition carried out in their own strength (15:4-6). The spiritual leaders functioned as their own lawgivers and lawkeepers. They were idolaters!
Jesus quoted from Isaiah in Matthew 15:7-8. Isaiah captured the mindset and lifestyle of Israel in both the Old and New Testaments: their hearts were far away from God (Isaiah 29:13). In the Old Testament, far away from God often referred to worshipping idols and not God (Jeremiah 2:5; Ezekiel 44:10). When help was deemed necessary, they understood something was bigger than them. But the people and priests did not ask “where is the Lord” but relied on self, material objects, and other nations (Jeremiah 2:8, 23; Isaiah 30:1-5). Idolaters are far removed from God and that is why they move further away. They function as if they do not need God but it is the god that they have established in their hearts. It is this god that they know. They are not worshipping the God who is. At best it is the image of God that they have created for themselves.
n Jesus’ day, tradition and keeping it had become increasingly more important than God and His law. Their law and their lawkeeping were linked. They did not need a spiritual messiah. Certainly they thought they needed to keep commandments (see the rich young man in 19:16-29). Israel thought in terms of earning something by what they did and did not do. Some say they were simply ‘staying within the covenant community.” No matter, as idolaters they made the law and kept the law in their own strength to get. The lawmakers themselves had become more important than God, the true Lawgiver (see John 5:45-47; 7:21-24). Their lawkeeping according to tradition became the standard for success or failure. They imposed that standard on others including Jesus. Tradition was the vehicle or tool for them to get for themselves.
Trusting something outside of self is self-trust. Hearts “turned from God” result from a heart turned to self and ultimately to Satan. Holding on to tradition (manmade principles and laws) is to neglect the commandments of God and the God of those commandments. But it is more. Holding on to tradition means holding up self, holding on to self, and worshiping self in lieu of God. Self, not things or people have replaced God as the object and Being of devotion and allegiance. Such is idolatry: definition and significance.
A major theme throughout the Old and New Testaments is heart worship as opposed to ritual keeping. The other gospels and the Old Testament emphasize this theme. John 4:20-24 teaches that God seeks Holy-Spirit-formed and directed heart worshippers. Ritual alone – outward conformity such as prayer, tithing, and church going – is woefully inadequate and condescending. Rather true worship is full allegiance to God (Isaiah 1:10-18; Jeremiah 6:20; 7:20; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Psalms 40:6-8; 51:16-17; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; Amos 5:21-25; Hosea 6:6-8; Micah 6:6-8; Zechariah 7:9-10; 8:16-17). God deserves all of every believer. Jesus elaborated on these points in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7. Jesus labeled those who put more stock in their laws and personal lawkeeping than God’s laws and the Messiah’s lawkeeping as hypocrites (Matthew 23). Idolatry is hypocrisy.
Matthew 6:1-15 teaches among other things that Jesus was not against duty: loving others, giving, praying, and fasting, Obedience can be a manifestation of God’s love of a person and the person’s love for God (John 14:15, 21, 23; 1 John 5:3). 1 Samuel 15:22-23 sheds light on the type of obedience God requires and deserves. Saul, much as the Pharisees, “obeyed” according to his standard and his efforts. Saul was not interested in God’s glory but his own. Rebellion and arrogance are linked to idolatry. Like Adam in the Garden, God removed Saul from His presence. Neither Adam nor Saul represented God. Each represented self. Samuel told Saul that doing things his way for his gain was rebellion and idolatry. Saul rejected the word of the Lord because he rejected God. The two are linked. Rejection of God is always exalting self. Saul, as his own lawmaker, put something in the place of God’s law and depended on his own lawkeeping. Such is essence of all idolatry.
1. What traditions have you as a lawmaker carved out for yourself to obey?
2. How have you set aside biblical truth?
3. Worship has an object. Write out the times it is easy to serve and worship self and hard to serve and worship God.
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part X
The Gospel of John and the Book of Isaiah
In our discussion: idolatry: definition and significance, we move to John and his gospel. John refers to Isaiah 6:1-10 (John 12:37-43). Isaiah 6 was a favorite passage of the New Testament writers (Matthew 13:13-15 as discussed earlier; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; Acts 28:26-27). In chapter 12, John referenced Isaiah’s prophecy to help explain why Israel’s unbelief and their rejection Him (John 12:37-43: Isaiah 6:10; 42:1-4; 53:1).
Isaiah is in the presence of God in the throne room (6:1-5). He had no recourse other than to be on his face before God when he considered himself and God. Unlike Israel, Isaiah knew he was unworthy, unclean, and could not stand in God’s presence. Therefore he humbled himself. In John 12:37-41, John wrote that Israel in Jesus’ day rejected Christ because of ignorance and arrogance – blind eyes and dead hearts. “Blind eyes” refers to “not seeing” as described in Isaiah 29:9-13 and 42:18-19. Israel was deaf, dumb, and blind spiritually. They were alive only to self. Such it is with idolaters. They are focused on self, on getting, and on feeling better about themselves. They are dead to the things of God and alive to the things of self. Even though their idols were dead they functioned as if they alive and well. Their idols were dead because they were dead! What they worshipped reflected their self-focus.
One major theme of the gospel of John is a contrast between two spheres of existence: light and darkness (John 1:5-10; 8:12; 9:39; 12:35-36). Jesus, the Light, came so Israel and eventually all nations would have Light and Life (John 8:12; 9:5; 14:6). His own rejected Him (John 1:4-5, 9-11; 3:17-21). The Holy Spirit through John applied Isaiah’s prophetic judgment on Israel of Jesus’ day. God had performed miracles in the midst of Egypt and in the wilderness so that Israel and Egypt would know that God was God (Ex. 6:7; 7:5; 9:14; 11:7-8). Neither Israel nor Egypt believed. John confirmed the deity of Jesus in John 12:41: Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him. Following their forefathers’ example, Israel as a whole rejected Jesus and His glory in spite of the miracles He performed.
John 12:42-43 (see 9:22) adds an interesting bit of information. In verse 42, John wrote that many believed. But! Always beware of but. The people would not profess their belief publicly because of “I want.” In verse 43, John wrote gave I want. The people were fearful because they put position and praise above honoring God. Fear is a type of thinking and wanting that drives action. Acknowledging one’s own glory by a having a position in the synagogue was more important than pleasing God. Self-pleasing and God-pleasing usually are diametrically posed. Seeking God’s presence in the synagogue did not motivate them to honor God; rather they honored themselves thereby misusing God’s house and being in His presence.
Some may say that “fear of man” indicates that other people are a person’s idol. In fact, the Jews in John 9 and in John 12 refused to bow the knee to Christ because they served and worshiped themselves by getting from others. The praise of others was simply a tool, a mechanism, to compete with God and get for self.
As recorded in John 12:35-36 Jesus drew attention to light. John highlighted the truth that Jesus is light (1:4; 8:12; 9:5). Jesus drew at least two contrasts in John 12:23-25 and 12:35-36. These are darkness vs. light and love of self (seeking one’s own glory) vs. love of God (worshipping and honoring Him). Jesus spoke of the spiritual battle within a person’s heart. The heart is the stage in which a moral drama is played out. This fact takes us back to Joshua 24:14-15 (see Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). Joshua’s question, “who will you serve,” in part asks who do you love and how will you demonstrate that love? Joshua’s question cuts to the very essence of idolatry.
Israel as a nation did not get it throughout the ages. Idolatry confirmed their unbelief and unbelief led to idolatry. Jesus is the light of the world. He explained part of the function of light in 12:44-46. The light points to the Triune God and His work in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Darkness is not God’s way for His people (Prov. 4:18-19; Eph. 5:8-14). Idolaters love the darkness and they hate the light (John 3:17-21). Sadly, believers can be enamored with self such that self takes center stage and vice versa. When that happens the person is attempting to reflect his glory. Rather, God is sinned against because the person is not glorifying God or reflecting His glory (Matt. 5:16). What/who a person esteems – reveres – is a manifestation of his heart-focus. It is either on self or God.
John brings idolatry into the New Testament by reference to Isaiah 6. Isaiah spoke of the glory of God and John spoke of Christ’s glory. John attested to Christ’s deity and oneness with God (John 10:30). God the Father and God the Son are one of being and in purpose. Worship of self denies who God is and what He deserves. It is a return to the Garden post-fall. It is hypocrisy, living the lie, and vanity.
1. Isaiah beheld God’s glory and acted accordingly. He was interested in God’s holiness and his own holiness. How are you like Isaiah? How are you unlike him?
2. On what have you set your affections, how is it manifested, and what have been the results?
3. Compare your answers with Matthew 6:33. What do you learn?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XI
The Gospel of John, the Book of Isaiah, and the Book of Job
Continuing our study: idolatry: definition and significance, we dip back quickly to the Old Testament. The first ten verses of the sixth chapter of Isaiah have much to teach regarding idolatry. It is often quoted in the New Testament. Isaiah 6:1-4 is quoted in John 12:41and Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted in John 12:40. Moreover, it is quoted by Jesus in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10). Paul also referenced the passage in Romans 11:8.
Isaiah was married and had children. His prophetic, public ministry was to Judah. It ranged some 40 years across the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Isaiah’s name means the Lord saves. The people needed to be saved from someone or something and they must be saved to someone or something. Salvation is always two-sided: a person is saved from something and to something. Therefore, one major theme of the book is also two-sided: God’s rightful judgment of Israel and all nations and God’s blessing of restoration of His people His way.
Another major theme of the book is the object of Israel’s trust. Will Israel trust in idols or in God? Chapters 40:18-20, 25 and 44:9-20 give major contributions to the Old Testament teaching on the issue of idolatry. Idolatry always involves a worshiper and an object or being to be worshiped.
In the opening four verses of chapter 6 Isaiah described his God-encounter (an out-of-body encounter perhaps) similar to Paul’s experience described in Corinthians 12. There was a difference: Paul heard inexpressible things too wonderful to know and Isaiah saw. Both had sense experiences. Isaiah came into God’s presence and he did not die: he had a vision. He saw the Lord seated on the throne, the train of hos robe, and His glory filled the temple (Exodus 40:35-38). Isaiah was in the presence of the most Holy God. In Exodus 40, the glory of God filled the temple and the Israelites were not allowed into His presence.
Isaiah saw and heard angelic beings. The angels knew Who God was and what He deserved. They gave Him themselves! They served the Sovereign Lord – they knew their place and they performed their ministry. They ceaselessly praised and served God. At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. Isaiah must have thought he had returned to Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18-19; 20:18-19). The smoke may have reminded Isaiah of the Levitical sacrificial system. The rising smoke reminded him of the fragrant aroma of the sacrificial activity to God who deserved the best that the worshipper could offer (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Isaiah described his position in verses 5-8. The Old Testament taught that physical death followed being in God’s presence (Genesis 16:13; 32:30; 33:20; Exodus 24:10; 33:20, 23; Numbers12:8; Judges 6:22; 13:22). It was terrifying to face the living God (Hebrews 10:31)! Isaiah assumed the most logical position. He fell face down and exclaimed that he would die. Isaiah would never be the same after his encounter with a holy God. He made several pronouncements:
- He was overcome by being in the presence of God. His only logical response was to get on his face (see Romans 12:1-2 which is a much softer response to Who God is and what He has done).
- He exclaimed that he was ruined. The word carries the idea of dust – vanishing, temporary, and nothingness. The concept is found in Job 40:2-5 and 42:2-6. Isaiah and Job made honest assessments of themselves. Any standard for life and success other than God Himself is folly and leads to idolatry. Isaiah and Job came to a proper understanding of themselves when they had a proper understanding of God. Isaiah and Job ridded themselves of the mindset of I deserve and I want. It was an easy transition once they had a proper knowledge of what each one was and needed. In Isaiah’s case, he knew what Israel needed: a changed view of God and self. Neither the Northern nor Southern kingdoms changed their view of God and self. They experienced God’s judgement as a consequence of competing with God. God does not share His glory or His people.
- Isaiah and Job (Job 42:5-6) pronounced themselves unclean, filthy, and corrupt when they came into the light of God, the true standard. Both men declared themselves unworthy of living in God’s presence as they were. They knew God would no change so they must. Isaiah described himself as a man of unclean lips among an unclean people (Isaiah 6:5). The word unclean (tame) takes us back to the sacrificial system. Isaiah was declaring himself an unfit offering; he was ceremonially unclean according to the Laws of purity/uncleanness (see Leviticus 11-16). The laws must be seen in the backdrop of God’s holiness (see Laws of Holiness in Lev. 17-21. A thing or person is unclean only because God is pure.
Throughout the pages of Scripture, the Holy Spirit teaches that the greatest uncleanness was/is idolatry. Isaiah, and Job after his session with God, knew he was in need of cleansing (even as a believer). Therefore Isaiah focused on the Levitical system and the blessing of the high priest entering into God’s presence and making a sacrifice for the nation. Isaiah knew, as did the other prophets, that the people were unclean through idolatry. Idolatry was the fruit of an unclean heart (Ezekiel 20:7, 18. 30-31; 20:26; Hos 9:1-4). Yet God has hope and help for the idolater. Such is the importance of idolatry: definition and significance.
1. The living God was before the people and they rejected Him. Why and what were the consequences?
2. Compare Isiah and Job: how was each changed as a result of an intimacy with God in His presence?
3. The saying, seeing is believing, was not true in the case of Israel. Give John’s reasons and how does John 1:4-9; 3:17-21, and 12: 37-41 help answer why?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XII
The Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of John
We remained in the gospel of John in our discussion: idolatry: definition and significance. John wrote in 12:41 that Isaiah saw the pre-incarnate Christ: Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus and spoke about Him. Isaiah saw the glory of God and in response, Isaiah humbled himself. In marked contrast, Israel was face-to-face with Jesus, the living God and yet rejected Him. The theophany of Isaiah had become a reality. The unbelief of Israel had reached its fullness. Isaiah’s prophecy had come true: Jesus came and the people rejected Truth. The people rejected Jesus who they considered was the simple, the inglorious, the loser, and troublemaker. They exchanged Truth for a lie and continued to practice its fruit – idolatry. Certainly there were physical objects in use and worshipped but John, as does the New Testament, moved to the heart of the problem, the person’s heart.
John, in 12:37-39, recorded the fact of the unbelief of Israel. The rejection of Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (12:38-41). In spite of physical signs and wonders by Jesus, the people refused to believe. They chose darkness in lieu of light, falsehood over truth, and bondage over freedom. They chose to worship themselves through I wants and I know in their self-generated reality. Freedom from the physical tyranny of Roman domination was their one concern. Getting for self by self took center stage. If Jesus could not deliver they would continue to take matters into their own hands physically and spiritually.
John equated the glory of God described by Isaiah and the glory of Christ as Messiah (John 12:42). Jesus brought the people into a whole new world: the world of freedom and truth. Jesus sets people free because He is Truth and His word is truth (Lukec4:18-22; John 8:31-32; 14:6; 17:17). It is freedom from – self, sin, and Satan. It is freedom from idolatry and self–pleasing. It is freedom to God, for God, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The believer moves from a self-pleasing mentality and lifestyle – idolatry – to one of pleasing God. Life is simplified.
Every person is a person of faith and belief. He is a worshiper. Israel had faith. They held to their beliefs. They believed in God but who was their God? More correctly, they believed in themselves and their own lawmaking and lawkeeping. They only needed a little help in the area of the physical – freedom from Rome. Israel of Jesus day was following the same pattern as Israel in Isaiah’s days. Israel had hardened her heart even though God has preserved a remnant of believers. John pictured the Israel of Jesus’ day to be in the mold of Israel in Isaiah’s day. Each had hard hearts. The hardening was providential from God but Pharaoh and Israel hardened their own hearts (God hardens Pharaoh’s heart: Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 110:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8; and Pharaoh’s his own heart: 7:13-14, 22; 8:15, 19; 32l 9:7, 34-35; see Isaiah 29:13 and Matthew 13:13-15). Israel had physical ears but they did not have spiritual ears; their heart was not tuned into God and His Son. Rather they were tuned only to self. Such is idolatry.
At the heart of unbelief is control and at the heart of control is idolatry. Behind every unbeliever, and too often the believer, is the legacy of Adam’s first sin. Competing with God and attempting to remove God from His throne are the result of unbelief. The person denies who God is and who he is. Unbelief is actually the belief that life and people exist for me. Many would call this pride. The person moves into the business of idol-making and idol-making at birth! One may say he is in the god-making business. Who would do that? It is the person who sets himself on the throne to engage in self-worshiping activity because self is most important.
The idol-maker is actually worshipping self through the idol. John addressed this concept in 12:42-43 (see John 9:22). Both of these passages speak of fear, another control issue. In each case, some of the people including leaders feared the loss of glory by the losing the praise of men! Membership and good standing in the synagogue brought them more joy than worshiping the true God. They worshiped themselves which was more important than worshiping God. They were idolaters. There were no objects that they had made. It was self on the throne and having glory their way. They did not seek the praise that comes from God or rest in God alone knowing that the phrase well done, good and faithful servant awaits them in eternity (John 5:44; Matthew 25:21, 23). God takes care of His people but the Israelites of Isaiah’s day and of Jesus’ day did not like God’s care.
1. Read the section in John 12 (v.37-43) and record what you learned.
2. Give ways how Israel of Jesus’ day and Isaiah’s were similar.
3. Idolatry results from a wrong view of God and of self. It centers on control, to get for self. Read Matthew 11:28-30: how does the passage address the issue of idolatry?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XIII
The Rich Young Ruler and the Lawyer
We move to biblical narratives to us in our study: idolatry: definition and significance. Biblical narratives are designed to catch one’s attention. They are designed to be memorable and to challenge a person’s thinking and wanting, Such is the story of the so-called Rich Young Ruler which is recorded in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30). Not much information was given about the man. Matthew said he was young and Luke called him a ruler, an official of some kind. Each recorded his coming to Jesus but there does not seem to be a context. His question focused on doing – by doing what shall I inherit. This was the same question asked by the lawyer in Luke 10:25. Interestingly, Jesus answered each man’s question (the ruler and lawyer) in the same manner. In each case Jesus appealed to law keeping.
In all three gospel accounts, Jesus corrected the ruler’s use of the word good. Jesus pointed the man to a different standard for judging good and bad, right and wrong, and truth and falsehood. Jesus pointed him to the Word of God as interpreted by God. Unlike the ruler, the lawyer of Luke10 got the first part. He appealed to Scripture – the Old Testament. In contrast, the ruler failed to understand either part. Jesus gave both a homework assignment which was to sell all their possessions, give to the poor, and follow Him. In other words, divorce yourself from self and be compassionate and merciful. Both of these commands required moving from self toward God and others. It required a proper of God and self. Actually Jesus told each man to divorce themselves idolatry!
Jesus met each man where he was. Each man thought in terms of personal and patterned lawkeeping, by a standard, and for a gain. Jesus appealed to what the ruler knew and desired. Jesus presented several of the Ten Commandments to him. These had to do with the second table of the law (fifth to tenth commandments). According to the ruler’s answers, he was the personal lawkeeper extraordinaire and from childhood no less. He thought patterned, personal lawkeeping was his characteristic but he missed his motivation: to get for whatever reason. He had created a world of successful, personal lawkeeping according to his standard for his own glory. He presupposed that he did not need Christ’s lawkeeping. But he was either not satisfied or looking for confirmation.
Knowing this, Jesus brought the ruler to a point of no return. Jesus told the ruler that he lacked one thing and only one thing. Literally, in Mark’s and Luke’s account, Jesus said one thing is still lacking in you. Wow! How can that be? That was the response of the disciples (Matt. 19:25). Jesus defined the one thing indirectly. He forced the ruler to consider who he was and Who Jesus was. The one thing was that which the ruler held so dear. Most people would be tempted to money or possessions. In reality, the ruler was using money to get stuff for himself. Self was con the throne! He was a functioning idolater.
Getting “stuff” and having “stuff” was more important than pleasing God. For whatever reason, pleasing self was at the top of the ruler’s agenda. When Jesus called him to divest himself from what was important and enjoyable – himself, the ruler was deeply grieved. Jesus called him to sell what he had, give to the poor, and come follow Jesus. Jesus’ call was radical and required supernatural help. Following Jesus meant denying self and taking up living for Christ through the Holy Spirit daily.
At this point many would point to possessions, power, people, and pleasure as idols. They may even say that one should turn to God to get satisfied. Whoa! Please think with me. For the ruler, self was on the throne. He was the idol, the idol maker, and the idol worshipper. We don’t know his motivation, but he was a getter. Things gave him something. But it seems that he was not satisfied or he was looking for Jesus’ approval (people pleasing!). No matter. The issue was within – in the ruler’s heart. Gaining stuff and lawkeeping were part of self-pleasing. He had created his own world in which he was king.
The ruler’s response to Jesus’ homework assignment is staggering. He was deeply grieved. It is the same the word that Matthew and Mark used to describe Jesus’ response in the Garden the night before the crucifixion (Matt. 26:38; Mark 14:34). Please note that the degree of inner-man discomfort was similar for the God-pleasing Jesus and the self-pleasing ruler. Yet, Jesus was giving Himself to the Father for undeserving sinners. In stark contrast, the ruler, a patterned getter, thought pleasing self was what life was all about. How could that be? As an understatement, the ruler was full of himself. Such is the life of the idolater. Such is idolatry: definition and significance.
We are not told what happened to the ruler. We do know what Christ did in the Garden: he prayed not my will but God’s be done. He pleased His Father and reaped blessings and rewards for himself, the Triune God, and believers. Amazing!
Returning to the lawyer in Luke 10, we read that he was further along in his doctrine than the ruler. He knew the summary of the law and the prophets (the whole Old Testament): love God and neighbor. Yet, his self-focus and self-pleasing hindered him from taking Jesus at face value. He was trapped and exposed. So, as self-pleasers do, he sought to justify himself. He asked: who is my neighbor (10:29). It is interesting to think along with the lawyer. He may be thinking along such lines as: other people hinder me from taking care of me. How can I get Jesus to agree that I am first?”
The fact of the matter is that Jesus and the Triune God have been addressing personal lawkeepers – idolaters – since the fall and God’s judgment. Believers are called to please God rather than self. Jesus’ answer for idolatry and self-pleasing is given in some form in the gospels (Matthew 10:32-33; 16:23-24; Mark 8:32-33; Luke 9:23; 14:27; John 12:23-27). Christ’s answer is summarized as: deny self, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. This will be one of topics for study next time.
1. What has God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit taught throughout the ages in regards to self-pleasing and self-worship?
2. How are you like and unlike the rich young ruler and the lawyer?
3. What makes self so important?
4. How may you use God and personal lawkeeping to please self and get something for self?
5. How will you change your view of God, self, others, and circumstances as put on pleasing God?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XIV
The Book of Romans
As we continue our study: idolatry: definition and significance, we turn our attention to the epistles. The New Testament reference to idols (eidolon and derivatives), idolatry (eidololatreia), and idolaters (idololatres) occur about 35 times. They are used primarily in the epistles and occur five times in the book of Acts. Paul is the primary user of the terms and mostly in the first letter to the Corinthians. We begin however in the book of Romans for reasons that should become clear.
The theme of Romans 1:21-28 could be entitled the great exchange. In these verses Paul asserts that idol worship was present in his time. How so? Paul prefaced these verses with 1:18-20 (The wrath of God is bring revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness since what may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse.) These verses teach that man is without excuse before God because God created every person with true, but non-saving, knowledge of Him. Man would look up and out. As he saw creation he would “see” the Creator, However, man suppresses and resists the truth that God is real, that He exists, and that He is Creator. God rightly holds man responsible for failing to honor and glorify Him.
Beginning with verse 21, Paul takes his readers back to the aftermath of Adam’s sin in the Garden. Paul describes the great exchange. In verses 22-23, fallen man exchanged darkness for light, foolishness for wisdom, and the glory of God for his own glory via images. Man moved into the image-making business. He made choices by which his allegiance was directed toward self by substituting the sensual: what he could perceive now through the senses without the direction of biblical truth and saving faith. He took center stage surrounded by a myriad of these images.
Fallen man continues to be self-focused and worship himself through something or someone else. He gives his allegiance to self and others in lieu of acknowledging and worshiping the One True God. Such is idolatry: definition and significance. Fallen man follows the first Adam’s footsteps. He trusts in self as manifested by trusting in something outside of self.
Idolatry is seeking a replacement – a substitute – to worship and trust in the place of God. Man has chosen himself. Usually he represents that choice that appears to be non-self – money, looks, pr fame. As I have said, idolatry is a consequence of Adam’s sin and God’s judgment. Adam was not born an idolater. He chose to please himself over trusting and pleasing God. Idolatry is part of the natural corruption that occurred in man after the fall so that every person is born an idolater. Every unbeliever becomes a programed and patterned self-pleaser. The believer has been radically and supernaturally changed by the Holy Spirit but sadly, the tendency to trust other than God remains in the believer.
The key word for the practice of idolatry is exchange (substitute). Paul’s words in verse 21-28 highlight man’s affection for the now, temporal, material, and physical lifestyle – sinful sensual living – using the senses for his own gain. Man is enticed by that which he thinks he can manipulate and control for himself and for his glory. Natural corruption is terrible condition but unconverted man seems to enjoy his folly (Prov. 26:11).
Paul writes that man was enamored with himself such that he labeled himself wise and walking in the light when in fact he was the fool, a liar, and walked in darkness (v.21-28). Worship was now regulated by the idolater. He determined who he would worship, how he would worship, and where he would worship. The great exchange continued. The idolater exchanges the truth – God and His Word – and replaces it with his own form of truth which Paul calls a lie in verse 25. The truth resister and suppresses becomes a truth exchanger and this leads to idolatry. Idolatry is living the lie! God left them in their sin and the consequences of it (especially see v.24-26). The idolater lives by feelings and dies by feelings. Sinful sensual living is characteristic of the idolater (see Gen. 25:29-34). Romans 1:24-32 paints a horrible picture of dishonorable activities which incur God’s disapproval and eventual judgment.
In Romans 1:24-26, Paul alluded to the Old Testament (Psalm 81:12; 106:20, 41; Isaiah 44:20; Jeremiah 2:5,11; 5:21; 10:14; 13:25; 16:19-20; Hosea 4:7, 16-17). The majority of these references refer to Israel’s worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32). This is trickery because the people wanted something that could sense sensually – see, and touch (Exodus 32:1). Aaron after fashioning the object gave it to the people. The people proclaimed: this is your gods, O Israel who brought you out of Egypt (32:4). What a distortion of reality! The people were serving and worshiping themselves and calling it God-worship! They were interested in their glory.
Paul brings these together as he emphasized Israel’s great exchange. They exchanged God and His glory for their own glory. Man worships aggressively that which he believes offers him much. The idol worshiper sets himself up as the decider. He calls the shots. He primarily worships himself through the medium of objects or persons outside of him. The great exchange started in the Garden and continues until Jesus returns. What a person worships reflects his heart. He seeks what he treasures in his heart (Matthew 6:19-24).
Paul writes in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Man was created to reflect God’s glory. Idolaters are not reflectors of God’s glory. They reflect their own glory and they attempt to steal God’s glory.
In Roman 6, Paul covered the subject of slavery. In verses 16-19 he spoke of two kinds of slavery: slaves to sin or slaves to obedience (v.16). Verses 17-18 are transition verses: slavery is equated with idolatry. Paul described idolatry as offering (worship) parts of the body according to the senses and feelings. If it feels good do it. Paul’s point is this: the believer is no longer an idolater and is to function as a God-pleaser – a slave to obedience and righteousness.
Paul opens chapter 12 with an exhortation (12:1-2). There appears to be a link between Romans 1:18-28 and 12:1-2. Paul’s “Therefore” of verse 1 indicates another great exchange – salvation. This, in part, explains chapter 6. The believer is no longer a slave to self, for self, and by self. He is a slave to God and God-pleasing: for God, by God, to God. The exchange was accomplished by God in man, for God but also for man. As a result Paul calls believers to put off love and trust of self and put on love and worship of God. The believer is a new creature in a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). He was transferred from the kingdom of darkness and Satan to God’s kingdom (Colossians 1:13). The believer has been delivered from the present evil age (Galatians 1:4). To the degree that a person is devoted to and trusting in self and the “age,” he is not devoted to God or trusting Him. Paul had no compunctions about presenting biblical truth. He wanted the Roman Christians to know that even believers play the fool. Still trusting self, they seek ways to glorify themselves by glorifying something other than God. Such is idolatry: definition and significance.
1. Consider the great exchange both as related to idolatry and salvation. What are your thoughts about each?
2. What truth about God and yourself are you suppressing and why?
3. What does salvation mean to you in terms of the great exchange?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XV
First Corinthians: part A
We continue our study of idolatry: definition and significance by moving to 1 Corinthians. Paul covered the subject of idolatry in First Corinthians 8 and 10. “Physical idolatry” – images conjured up by man – was alive and well in Corinth. The Corinthian congregation was characterized by self-serving, self-grasping, and self-exalting individualism. They were convinced of their spiritual vitality. They were proud and ignorant people. As a result, there was factionalism, division, and strife (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Self was on the throne so they thought. Sinning and suffering abounded. Such is the life of the idolater. Such is idolatry: definition and significance.
Paul devoted the whole of chapter 8 to the subject of “food sacrificed to idols.” Apparently meat which had been used for sacrificial purposes in the heathen temples was offered for sale at a cheaper price. Some raised the question of whether this meat could be eaten by Christians without sinning. A division had arisen in the Corinthian church in part over this issue. Some gave approval and others voiced disapproval over the practice of eating meat offered to idols. Paul used the situation as an opportunity to teach truth about God and idols and the use of that truth. Paul emphasizes truth and love over knowledge because the latter puffs up (8:1).
Paul’s final and simple answer was given in verse 6: an idol is nothing. It is vanity of vanity/futility to spend time constructing idols with one’s hands or in one’s thoughts. Worshiping idols and self through idols is part of the curse of the fall. The reason that Paul gives for the futility of this type of worshiping is basic theology: there is only one God (8:6). The idol and the idolater are not God!
Yet the people didn’t realize that idols were nothing (8:7). They conducted themselves as if the idol was everything because they considered themselves everything. But nothing is behind the idol except man’s thoughts and desires within his heart (Isaiah 40:18-25; 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:1-16). The idol is worthless and the one who makes it is nothing (Isaiah 44:9). The idol-maker assumes the role of creator (Isaiah 44:12). He competes with God! What is behind the idol is the person, the idolater. Man, the wannabe god and proud idol-maker, “creates” something to worship which is actually worshiping himself. Yet, the idolater and the idol are nothing. The idolater attempts to get for himself through the use of the idol and idol-making.
Part of God’s judgment of idolaters and idolatry in the Old Testament is based on the truth that idols are impersonal, worthless, and dead. Idolaters are involved in spiritual suicide as they express their deadness to God and aliveness to self. Yet they zealously suppress their own deadness convincing themselves they are correct (Romans 1:18-25). Rather they are self-consumed.
Paul emphasized at least one other aspect of idolatry: the becoming one with the idol because a person is one with himself. This concept takes us back to 1 Corinthians 6:15-17. The believer is one with Christ. He is united to Christ. The self-pleaser through physical adultery becomes one with that person. There is a physical union, an identity. Such it is with the idolater.
In chapter 10 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul warned the congregation by drawing a parallel based on Israel’s history. Israel had received much from God (verses 1-4). Israel was united to God. God had formed a special relationship with His covenant people. Paul used this Old Testament truth to point to its fulfillment in and with Christ, the Rock. The Church and individual believers are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the wilderness, Israel rejected God which pointed to the many so-called Christians as rejecters of Christ. In the wilderness, God related to Israel much differently than Israel related to God. God was displeased with Israel (v.5). These past events and God’s response happened as examples for the benefit of believers in Paul’s day and today (v.6, 11). In verse 14 Paul exhorts the people to flee idolatry. He repeats the fact that the idol (and the idolater and his sacrifice) is nothing (10:19).
We have learned from the Old Testament that idolatry is spiritual adultery. The idolater is committed to someone and something else other than God. There are devastating consequences. Every person commits himself to something and someone, which represents himself, his wants and desires. In the thinking of the idolater, there is oneness and a share-ness with someone other than God and always with the goal of getting. Idolatry is relational and focuses on one’s view of God and self.
1. In these two chapters (1 Corinthians 8 and 10), Paul taught that God is alive but idols are dead. If idols are dead (see above), what does it say about idolaters?
2. Idolatry is spiritual adultery: it is union with another in order to get for self. How do James 3:13-4:5 express the concept of spiritual adultery?
3. Every person is a religious, worshiping being who after Adam’s sin has attempted to create his own world: what is your self-made world and what have been the results of your life in it?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XVI
First Corinthians: part B
In our study: idolatry: definition and significance, let’s take a closer look of chapter 10 of First Corinthians. It offers more insight into the subject of idolatry. Paul returns his readers to the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:7-22). As noted earlier, idolatry is characterized by a great exchange – the glory and worship of God for self as manifested by an object outside of self (Romans 1:18-23). Since the fall all people engage in false worship. They suppress the truth of God and themselves and seek their own kingdom/reality in contrast to Matthew 6:33. Worship is flawed because their view of God and self is sinful.
In verse 18 of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul again reminds the Corinthians to consider the people of Israel – their forefathers – and their evaluation of God, self, others, and God’s providence. Paul urged the congregation to evaluate their forefathers in Israel according to a Holy Spirit-directed and -motivated understanding of God and self. The background of 1 Corinthians 10:7-22 may be the golden calf incident of Exodus 32:1-6 but should not be limited to that event. Paul had established in 1 Corinthians 8:4 that an idol is nothing. Idolatry is vanity and is, in fact, stupidity (Proverbs 8:36).
In verses 19-20 of 1 Corinthians 10 (Do I mean that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything or that the idol is anything. But the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons), Paul equates idolatry with the worship of demons. To sacrifice to an idol is to sacrifice to a demon. Instead of the worshiper sharing in, being united with Christ, the worshiper becomes sharers with demons. There is Old Testament precedent for this line of thinking (see Deuteronomy 32:16-21; Psalms 97:7 and 106:37-38; Jeremiah 2:5-11; Hosea 4:7, 16-17).
The idolater becomes like that which he worships in part (perhaps the whole) because he worships himself as he wishes himself and his world to be. The idol reflects the worshiper and the worshiper the idol (see Isaiah 44 and Jeremiah 10). In verse 22 Paul reminds the Corinthians that God is a jealous God (the Second Commandment) and does not share His glory or His people with any other (Isaiah 42:8; 46:9; 48:11). Idolatry is a statement about God as God – that He is inferior. It is a statement about the idolater – he has the right and privilege to take for self what is due God alone.
False gods are products of wrong thinking about God and self. Idolatry can be equated with creating one’s own world – a virtual reality in which the person lives by I wants and I deserves. When man assumes to be in the idol or god-making business he is attempting to play God and to steal His God-ness. Such is idolatry: definition and significance.
The assuming to oneself the making of substitute gods is a perversion of man’s inherent worshiping capacity and activity as an image bearer of God. In his heart man manufactures idols to fit his worldview. He produces them with his hands or only in his thinking. Thoughts, desires, and activities flow from idol-making and idol-shaping. Man engages in worship that is reserved for God alone. Actually the idolater is worshiping himself.
As previously mentioned, Scripture teaches that man becomes like the idol he males, substitutes, and worships (Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:1-16; Psalms 115:8-11; 135:15-18). What does it mean to take on the characteristics of an idol? Most likely it means sharing in the same condition. Idolatry is a dead and foolish religion. The idolater is as his idol – himself both of which are dead and impersonal. The idolater relates to himself first and most. People, things including a physical or non-physical, and even God exist for the idolater. Idols are impotent, useless, and are often burned in the fire to comfort man. They have eyes and don’t see. Those who fashion them are like them – dead and lifeless but a walking, talking, living corpse. Actually, idol makers are alive to self. Idols serve the idol-maker. Idol-making is a return to the Garden and heeding Satan’s exhortation – to be like God.
No matter how nice or how good the idolater paints the picture of himself and his idol, he is demonstrating his inherited post-fall nature and corruption. By nature unsaved man is the great suppresser, the great exchanger, the great fool, and the idolater (Romans 1:18-23). Unfortunately the believer periodically functions in the same manner.
The fact that idolatry is associated with the worship of demons gives a perspective on Christ’s use of His authority during His three-year ministry on earth. Throughout the gospels Jesus demonstrated power over demons, disease, death, and natural forces. The demons knew Jesus was the Son of God (Mark 1:34; 3:22ff; 5:6-9; Matthew 8:29; James 2:19). When Jesus cast-out demons He reinforced the First and Second Commandments. There is only one God who rightly requires and desires all devotion and allegiance from His children. Idolatry resurrects and applies the false concept that this is not God’s world and even if it is, man can live in it his way or he “create” his own world with himself as king. Such is idolatry: definition and significance.
1. How are you becoming more like Christ in terms of thinking, desires, and actions?
2. What is your motivation to become like Christ? See Ephesian 1:3-14 to help you.
3. If you are not becoming more like Christ who are you becoming more like? See John 8:31-32, 44.
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XVII
The books of Ephesians and Colossians
We take up two other Pauline passages that appear to impact the subject of idolatry: definition and significance.
- Ephesians 5:5: For of this you can be sure; no immoral, impure, or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.)
- Colossian 3:5: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed which is idolatry.
It is important to remember why these epistles were written. They were written about the same time (60 A.D.). They are two of Paul’s prison letters written from Rome during his first imprisonment (the other two being Philemon and Philippians).
The letter to the Ephesians may have been a circular letter to several congregations. It presents a mini-picture of the theology of salvation that is written in the motif of the indicative/declarative and the imperative/command. Chapters 1-3 declare what God in Christ by the Holy Spirit has done for the believer. It sets the foundation of the mighty work of redemption. The Ephesian believers were blessed beyond measure because they were in Christ. Chapters 4-6 give imperatives in terms of application of the truths. They emphasized the Church’s response to Christ. Having counted their blessings, they were to act as saved people. The letter to the Ephesians outlies and addresses the “good ways” of God.
Paul, in the letter to the Colossians, emphasizes the deity of Christ and His headship over the Church. Paul’s major purpose in writing this letter was to refute heresy and false teachers by focusing on the person and work of Christ. Both letters address error and godly and right living according to biblical truth.
Paul opens chapter 5 of the letter to the Ephesians with an exhortation for the congregation to imitate Christ (v.1). In verse 2, he summarizes how: love is to be a patterned lifestyle as Christ himself demonstrated. Paul carries on this line of thinking in verses 3-7. Self-pleasing, me-first, and living by the senses expecting to find good feelings are characteristics of this lifestyle. Jesus contrasted feeling-oriented lifestyles with His lifestyle. Jesus came to do His Father’s will. Pleasing His Father kept Him focused: before the cross, at the cross, and after the cross. In John 4:31-34 Jesus drew a contrast between physical food (bread) and spiritual food (doing his Father’s will). Jesus did not live for self by the senses but as a God-pleaser eating the spiritual food of pleasing His Father.
In Ephesians 5:3-5, Paul listed several specific self-pleasing activities including greed. He labeled them as idolatry. Even if you limit the use of the term idolatry to greed in verse 5, the point remains: coveting is covered in the Ten Commandments. The Tenth Commandment is a summary of man’s response to God and is a final statement on the first two commandments. Coveting is dissatisfaction with self, one’s condition or situation, and the God who ordained all things to come to pass. God is to perform for you the person and when He does not, the person plays God which is idolatry.
In verses 8-14, Paul draws another contrast. Unbelievers walk (the word in the original indicates patterned, habitual lifestyle) in darkness because they are darkness (the original language indicates a state of being). They are self-pleasers in principle and in action. The habitual self-pleaser is an idolater. He is interested only in serving self (see Matthew 23). A person may desire money but actually he worships himself through what he thinks money will give him. Money is the tool to get. On the other hand, the believer was a child of darkness but he is now a child of light (see Ephesians 2:1-3, 4-7 for the same concept). In principle, the believer is no longer a self-server and self-truster because he is in Christ. Sadly, the believer will still function as an idolater at varying times until Jesus returns.
In the letter to the Colossians Paul is combating a Gnostic heresy that promoted righteous living based on personal righteousness according to the person’s own standard. In chapter 1, Paul highlights the great rescue and transfer from the kingdom of Satan, self, and sin which is a kingdom of darkness, deadness and bondage. The truly great escape is from Satan’s family and kingdom into God’s family and kingdom of light (Colosians1:13). The believer has moved from the continuous world of idolatry to God’s family and kingdom. This is truly good news.
In the letter to the Colossians, Paul describes the rescue in terms of reconciliation (1:21-22). God is no longer the believer’s enemy. The believer still functions as an enemy at times but God is no longer alienated from the believer. Amazing! Chapter 2 is full of cautions and exhortations for the people to hold firmly the system of doctrine that sets them free (Colossians 2:1-5 is a partial commentary on John 8:31-32). Truth sets the prisoner free. Truth is a Person and the Word (John 14:6; 17:17). Paul encouraged the people to continue their pursuit of holiness – progressive sanctification (2:6-7). Beginning in chapter 3, he exhorts the congregation to have a proper vertical oriented (3:1-3 – see Hebrews 12:1-3). In part, a proper vertical reference means putting to death (killing) the pre-conversion self-pleasing mindset with its many activities (v.5). The list of self-pleasing activities is similar to what Paul gave in Ephesians 5:5.
Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 are a commentary on Jesus’ command to deny self, take up your cross, and follow me (Matthew 10:37-38; 16:24; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:23; 14:27; John 12:25). Ever since the fall and God’s judgment, self is the problem. What are believers to deny? It is their self with its demands and I deserves. It is idolatry! It is covenantal unfaithfulness. Money is not the problem nor is a person’s “love” of it (actually strong desire for it). The idolater is after what he can get and beauty (looks), brawn (strength and authority), bucks (buying power), and brains (thinking power divorced from biblical truth) are some tools that people, including believers, use to get. Sadly, sometimes believers use God to get. Such is idolatry: definition and significance.
1. What are your thoughts re: God’s supernatural transfer of you as a believer (see Col 1: 13)?
2. What is the significance of that transfer?
3. Read Ephesians 5:15-18 as a summary of Chapter 5 and the topic of idolatry. What are your thoughts?
Idolatry: Definition and Significance: Part XVIII
1 John 5
As we close our series: idolatry: definition and significance, it is fitting that we close with the epistle 1 John. The book of 1 John was written to expose false teaching and to give assurance of one’s salvation. John thought it important that believers know that they are saved. John’s burden in writing is expressed in 1 John 5:13: “….so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The backdrop of John’s letter was a culture that had jettisoned moral restraints. In the Gnostic system, the material (body and physical) was bad and evil. Two practices emerged: the person treated the body harshly (an ascetic form) or the person engaged in all types of personal law-breaking to accomplish self-pleasure. There are no moral consequences since the body is bad. The Gnostic heresy suited fallen man’s inclination to please self and idolatry.
John closed his letter with a rather startling exhortation: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). The word idols or its counterpart had not been used previously. The word for keep or guard is in the active voice indicating the need for individual effort. The temptation is great for the believer to attempt to put self before God. Living the lie is part of the legacy of Adam’s sin and God’s judgment. The idolater attempts to replace God with self by self. Based on his understanding of God, self, others, and life (God’s providence) and driven by I want and I deserve the idolater fashions or manipulates things and people or develops aspirations and goals to reach for and to worship. He is the idol-maker. In reality, he worships himself through the use of getting from things, not simply getting things, or others and even God.
John set the stage for this closing exhortation. In earlier chapters John had written about motivation. This was a timely subject given the false teaching that emphasized living by feelings and experience in order to get and to feel better. In chapter 2 verses 15-17, John drew a stark contrast: love of world and the commitment to getting driven by I want vs. love of God with a commitment to trust and obey by pleasing Him (Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of the eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and desires pass away but the man who does the will of God lives forever.).
The physical world was not the problem – it is God’s (see Psalm 24:1-2). By world John refers to the system and patterned life style of anti-God and pro-self in its various forms. John is speaking of satanic influence that is outside the believer and the remaining tendency to please self within the believer. In these three verses John reflected on regeneration: the birth from above vs. the birth from below (John 3:3-8; 6:60-64; James 3:13-4:5). Where your heart is, is where you will spend your time and energy. Love of God is antithetical to love of self and idolatry. Birth from above is Holy-Spirit wrought and removes the believer from the kingdom of darkness and deadness and from arrogance and ignorance. The birth from below is the lifestyle that is the result of being in Satan’s family and kingdom. It is characterized by getting, sinful sensual living, and self-pleasing.
John referenced satanic influence in 3:7-12 and cautioned the congregation about being deceived and led astray. The word in the original indicates wandering without a set course except that of self-pleasing (v.7). He speaks of patterned sin (v.8) and in verse 12, he speaks of Christ’s work on the cross and freedom from self pleasing to pleasing God. John’s words regarding he has been sinning from the beginning referred to the beginning of the human race. John took the readers back to the Garden of Eden. Satan and Adam attempted to build their own world and live in it their way. Both wanted to be their own law-maker and law-keeper. Both Satan and Adam told God to move over. That is what the idolater does. The consequences are devastating.
John closes chapter 5 with three we knows. John referred back to Jesus’ statement in the gospel of John (8:31-32: the truth will set you free.). What truth?
In v.18 (we know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe and the evil one can’t harm him.), we know that the Holy Spirit and Satan don’t coexist in the believer. Therefore, self-pleasing will not continue in the believer as a patterned way of life. It is impossible!
In verse 19 (we know that we are children of God and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.), the second we know referred to Paul’s victory cry in Romans 8:35-39. Believers are more-than-conquerors in Christ because of His victory. They are in the world but not of the word and Satan has no direct control over them.
In verse 20 (we know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.), the third we know testified to Christ’s deity and His Kingship – He is truth and light. Knowing the true God, that is having a vital, growing relationship with him (John 17:3), is the antidote to idolatry. The living, true God markedly contrasts the deadness of false gods and the idol-maker (Exodus 3:6-15; Matthew 22:23-23; John 8:56-58). John has taken us back to the Old Testament (see previous blogs).
The we know focus on truth and knowledge,. Those come to be the believer through a relationship with the Triune in Christ by the Holy Spirit (John 17:3). John is speaking of great truths as he combines relationships, regeneration, and truth. This trio is God’s answer for idolatry: you are not your own –regeneration; you are in Christ – relationship; you are children of light – truth. Idolatry can survive when there is a clear picture of the Triune God and self. John the Baptist said it well: He must become greater; I must become less (John 3:30). John was no competitor with God. He was no idolater. Believers are to follow suit.
Based on the three we knows and what has proceeded in his letter, John’s plea and exhortation in verse 21 fits a theme: God is God and you aren’t. Idolatry – self-worship – has no place in your life. You are saved. Think and act like it. Stop competing and humble yourself under God’s mighty hand. Then you will enjoy the fruits of joy, peace, contentment, and assurance.
1. Truth sets you free: about God and self. In terms of idolatry, what are those truths?
2. What does idolatry look like in your life?
3. What will keep you from idolatry?
4. In what ways does the principles of I want and I deserve motivate you and what has been the results?