2009-06-28 (pm) Lord’s Day 34 No Other Gods
As we begin our study of the Ten Commandments, starting with this first commandment, let’s consider two things seriously.
First, the catechism solemnly warns that idolatry endangers my salvation. Second, Paul warns us in the passage from 1 Corinthians 10 that though the Israelites were members of the covenant, though they were under the cloud and passed through the sea, they were rejected by God because they practised idolatry.
So what is idolatry? And why is it so serious that we have these warnings?
“Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in his Word.”
More simply, idolatry is wrong belief. It is a lack of faith in the one true God, the creator of the universe, the one who holds us by his mighty arm, the one who has rescued us from slavery from bondage to sin.
The Israelites were miraculously saved from slavery in Egypt, pulled out by God’s mighty arm, and barely two seconds go by, and they’re throwing their jewellery into a fire and making a golden calf to worship.
These actions reveal that they really don’t believe that God is whom he says he is, that God is the one who acted on their behalf.
I find that almost incomprehensible, don’t you?
And yet, all Christians have been saved from bondage to slavery to sin, and that Christ has fully paid for all our sins, and that we’re forever right with God, still Christians sin. Christians turn to false religion, they incorporate false practises into the church, and abandon the truth for lies.
But what do we do with these warning statements? How seriously do we take them?
Haven’t you heard people say, “We’re in the New Covenant in Christ, we’re living after Christ lived. It’s different. But if that is the case, why was Paul writing these things to the Corinthians?
Paul was writing these things as a warning to the Corinthians. They were accustomed to living with idols. Many different gods were worshipped in Corinth. There were feasts and sacrifices and rituals that were woven into every part of the very fabric of society.
For example, if you were part of the leather worker’s guild, then you would give contributions to the leatherworker’s deity. You would participate in religious activities in order to keep your deity happy, and in order to protect your business.
It was something that everybody did and was expected to do. In addition to the guild gods, there was the goddess Venus, the goddess of lust and fertility. People were encouraged to participate in activities that included sexual immorality. There were reportedly over 1000 shrine prostitutes in her temple.
It would be accurate to say that it was nearly impossible for people living in Corinth to avoid doing things that involved one god or another. Thus, for the church in Corinth, it was exceedingly difficult. If you were a Christian convert, you would have to quit your guild. You would lose valuable clients and patrons. You would lose status in your town because you wouldn’t be participating in any of the events.
Becoming a Christian was a huge commitment. It really did mean turning your back on everything you had known. It meant giving up certain rights and privileges. It meant even literally at times, taking up your cross and following Christ.
But, Paul’s letter indicates that not everyone was willing to give up everything for Christ. They were still clinging to their old ways of doing things. They still wanted to do what they always did.
The reason? They had trouble trusting in the one true God. They were trying to hedge their bets. Or, they were simply trying to mix several religions activities together. This was very similar to what the Israelites were guilty of doing. The Israelites worshipped in the Temple, yes, but they also built altars on the high places and gave sacrifices to other gods. They made Ashtoreth poles. The worshipped Baal and Dagon and apparently even sacrificed their own children to Chemosh, the deity of Moab.
In one account, we read that Ahaz “offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus, who had defeated him; for he thought, “Since the gods of the kings of Aram have helped them, I will sacrifice to them so they will help me.” But they were his downfall and the downfall of all Israel.”
These were detestable things in God’s eyes. He is the one true God. There are no other gods. The God we serve is the one who rescues people. He’s the one who takes people out of the darkness, out of their slavery and brings them to himself. He performs mighty acts for their benefit.
The Israelites didn’t appreciate God’s grace and goodness to them. Even though they all experienced God in such a powerful way, only two, Joshua and Caleb, two of all those who were 20 years old or older, made it out of the wilderness! Can you imagine that? One commentator estimated that there were on average 90 deaths per day in the wilderness on account of the people’s disbelief! What a tragedy!
It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?
That’s what motivated Paul to write his warning to the Corinthian church. He saying to them, “don’t take your position for granted. Don’t think that just because you’ve been baptised and take part in communion that you’ve got it made in the shade. You can’t take this for granted. Look the Israelites. They thought they could put their feet up, they thought they could do whatever they wanted. Look what they did! Look what happened to them!”
Paul lists five things that they did which caused them to be excluded from entering the Promised Land:
1. coveting food (Num. 11:4)
2. engaging in idolatry (Exod. 32:4, 6, 19)
3. committing immorality (Num. 25:1–9)
4. testing the Lord (Num. 21:5)
5. grumbling (Num. 14:2, 36; 16:1–35)
The Israelites had been miraculously saved, and yet they complained about the food they were given to eat. God provided special food, manna and he caused water to flow out of solid rock. He looked after them. He made sure their clothes never wore out. They had all they needed to live, and because they didn’t trust God to win their battles for them, they had to endure forty years in the wilderness.
How often are we like that? God provides for all our needs, a roof over our heads, food, clothing and a whole lot of other things besides. And still, we can find ourselves coveting other things. Growing tired of the things we have, even if they are still perfectly good!
And how many times are we forced to wait years for the things that God has promised us, simply because we lost faith, or we were afraid of the obstacles before us. God is gracious, and he is patient. Let us keep focused and believing in Him!
As to idolatry, is our society very different from Corinth? Or Israel? We’re encouraged to worship and praise the Canadian Idol, or the American Idol, or the King of Pop, or what have you. We’re also encouraged to honour the biggest idol-the self. We are individualistic, selfish people, or we live among individualistic selfish people.
It is a constant battle. The Israelites and the Corinthians faced a similar battle. Do we change, or don’t we? It is hard to see sometimes how to be in the world and not of it. Many people criticize many churches, many Christians for being too similar to the society around it.
Some churches have tried to combat culture by becoming totally different from culture, such as the Amish and the Mennonite, the old order Mennonites. Others, have tried to control their religious expressions by refusing to allow new music to be sung in church, using an old hymnal rather than coming up with a good criteria for determining what is a good song.
As members of the Christian Reformed Church denomination, we are aware of areas in which there are concerns. Some are concerned about the decision to open the offices to women, there are others who are concerned that the way is being paved to allow other things to change and let people who are determined not to live Christian lives to become members, elders, deacons and pastors. Still others are concerned that pastors are not preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in some CRC churches, Sunday worship seems to be lacking true talk about sin, and Christ and the cross.
God is raising up prophets, people who are calling the church to repentance. There are a group of pastors and churches in Michigan, and elsewhere who have joined a group calling themselves the returning church. Their goal is to return the church to a basic Biblical focus, where God’s Word is central, where sermons are Biblical, expositional.
As a congregation, we too can be involved in trying to encourage our denomination to faithfulness to scripture and the Lord. I’m very excited about the work that God is doing among His people. And it is a wonderful thing to be involved in it.
The immorality of our society hardly needs mentioning, does it. Sexual sin is quite prevalent, almost as much as it was in Rome or Corinth. Let us not delude ourselves, yes our situation might be bad, but it is hardly worse than other times in history.
Christians are just as tempted as anyone else, and if you believe the Barna polls and data, they show that the divorce rates, infidelity, dishonesty and such are just as high as in the world. Some of these results might be due to the kinds of questions asked to determine whether or not a person is a Christian, that is to say, that a person might identify themselves as Christian but they are one in name only.
As to testing the Lord, the Israelites complained that God had brought them out into the desert to die, that they detested the food that he was providing for them. Do we test the Lord too? Do we question his motives for our lives? Do we allow our circumstances to question our understanding of God, or do we trust God in our circumstances?
It would be beneficial for us to read the Psalms, particularly the ones written by King David. I don’t know how he did it, he was anointed as king, but he had to wait years before he became king. He was a servant of King Saul who tried several times, to kill him.
And yet, the Psalms are full of David’s faith in God. Psalm 23 says, “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want, he leads me beside still waters, though I walk or play the harp in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies he anoints my head with oil.” Such trust David had. Even though he went through many difficult times, even though he committed sin, even though his own son conspired against him, David remained resolutely faithful to God. We can learn from him, and not test the Lord.
Finally, the Israelites were guilty of grumbling. Again, this shows a lack of faith, a lack of belief that God is sovereign, that he is fully in control. Check out Numbers 16, the description is astounding. The nation grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and 14,000 people died of the plague! If Aaron hadn’t made atonement for them, more would have died!
Oh that we would be much more careful in our activities concerning God! He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! We must approach such an awesome God with a holy fear, shouldn’t we?
Perhaps one of the most distressing things is the over emphasis on God’s immanence. We are so carefree in our attitude toward God sometimes! Sometimes we use him as a genie, as a good luck charm, perhaps unwittingly so!
In two weeks, when we will meet again, as next week is the concert in the park, we’ll look at making an image of God. This is very much related to idolatry of course, but we’ll look at our contemporary culture, Christian culture, and see how some are really pushing the immanence of God, and completely ignoring God’s transcendence.
Let us spend the next couple of weeks meditating on God’s law. Read through the Ten Commandments again on your own. Think about how they show whom God is and how they show who we are. May we come to a deeper understanding of our almighty, awesome God! Amen.