- The nature of idolatry
Have you ever been to a Chinese restaurant? Or an Indian one? Or another Asian one? Chances are you’ve come across an idol. From my experience most of those restaurants have idols in them – usually little carved statues, sometimes of a temple, or of Buddha, or another god, sometimes with a candle in it, or rice or money. Sometimes not. But it’s an idol.
How are Christians to respond to idols? And are we in danger of idolatry? Are you an idolater? Let’s pray as we begin. PRAY
- Idols and Israel
‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them’. So states the first half of the second commandment.
Why is Israel commanded not to have any idols?
If you were here last week you’ll know we looked at the first commandment – to have no other gods before me. That is to have no gods other than God, the God who made heaven and earth, the God who formed Israel as a people, and had saved them, by bringing them out of slavery in Egypt by miraculous acts and a powerful hand. This God, the one true God, had brought them to Mt Sinai and had now come down to the mountain top in an awesome display, come down to speak to his people, by speaking to Moses and laying down the principles of how the people were to live now that they were God’s people. Remember these commandments were not given as a means for the Israelites to be saved – they were already saved – but they were given as a way to respond to grace and live God’s way, to live the life of faith, and grow in holiness as God wanted.
And so they were commanded not to have any other gods, and now not to make any idols.
And idols would be a very real threat to the people’s relationship with God.
What is an idol? It is a visual representation of a god.
Now we don’t read about idols in the Bible before this prohibition, but the Israelites would have known about idols. In both Egypt where they had come from and Canaan, where they were going, human and animal forms played an important role in showing the character of a deity. But Israel are told not to do this. Why?
Because it is folly and futility.
It is folly when we stop and think about what an idol is, and futility when we think about what an idol does.
a) Think about what an idol is. Just turn with me to Is 44 where Isaiah writes about what is involved in the making of idols. Is 44:12-20. How stupid - to think that a piece of metal or a lump of wood is divine. How stupid to think that this piece of wood represents in any way, shape or form the God who made the heavens and the earth with a word, who flung the stars into their right positions in space, who knows them by name, who created the birds and animals and fish and insects and people, from nothing. You’ve got to be kidding. Talk about misrepresenting God. God has no visible form, and so any idol intended to represent him must be a less than adequate image and therefore sinful. Moses reminds the people in Deut 4:12 – ‘the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.’ And again in v15 – ‘you saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape.’ God has no body, he is an infinite spirit. You cannot capture that in an idol, in a piece of created material. No idol can portray God in the way that he has revealed himself to us. To think that you could somehow is just absolute folly. Only Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being, according to Hebrews 1.
b) But not just that – did you see what people hope their idols can do in v17b – READ. People trust that idols will save them. But they cannot. Only God can save – and if we turn back to Exodus and Israel’s recent experiences – they know that only God can save, because he has just done it. The idols and gods of Egypt were powerless, because they are not gods. It is futile to think that an idol could save them. Again only Jesus can save us.
And yet that is precisely what the people of Israel do. Again turn with me to Ex 32:1-4 – READ. This golden calf, made by Aaron out of ear-rings, is given the credit for bringing the people up out of Egypt. It is unbelievable, but such is sin’s deceitfulness.
People want to have a god they can see, a god they can touch, a god they can feel. And because we cannot do that with the true and living God people turn easily to idols. And idols become dangerous for they then lead us away from the true and living God. And that is why in 1 Cor 10 Paul can write that idolatry is essentially demonic – it is a lie which turns people away from God.
People think they can then manipulate the god represented by the idol. I can control god by the way I use my idol. I can harness the power of god for me. I have my god with me here in my pocket or my house or my restaurant, and provided I treat it the right way I will be blessed. And if I treat it wrongly it will be angered and then I’m in big trouble.
The danger in making some religious symbol out of metal or wood or any other material is not in the making of the thing – remember God actually sanctioned Israel in making a number of religious tokens - figures of cherubim, brazen serpents, and so on, and it was never condemned. The mere making was no sin — the sin lay in making such things with the intent to give idolatrous worship, as if it were a god. The danger lies in thinking it has a power of its own. Idols have no power of their own – they are mere lumps of metal or wood.
- Idols and Christians?
Now surely this commandment is given only to Old Testament Israel. We would never be so crass as to make idols out of wood or metal are we? The Israelites were so unsophisticated – we Christians wouldn’t be like that, would we? I know other religions do it, but they’re just unenlightened pagans, so Peter writes in 1 Pe 4:3, but we know better don’t we? We wouldn’t have idols. Would we?
Let me offer you 3 verses to show that the commandment against idolatry still applies to Christians – Paul writes in 1 Cor 10:1-14 – READ. Note that last verse - ‘therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry’. Why – because it is still a temptation for us. Consider Gal 5:19-21 as Paul lists some of the acts of the sinful nature – READ. Idolatry is still an issue. Or John ends his first letter with this warning – 1 John 5:21 – ‘dear children, keep yourselves from idols.’ The commandment still has great relevance for us to day. If anything it is expanded beyond metal or wooden forms to cover anything which becomes the focus of our desires, worship and trust.
So what sorts of idols might Christians be tempted to embrace?
We don’t have statues in this church to which some may be tempted to pray, but some do. We don’t have religious artwork in our church which will always misrepresent God, but some do. And many of us have images in our minds of what Jesus looks like - perhaps that meek, mild blonde-haired blue eyed Anglo-looking shepherd with a lamb over his shoulders. That’s not the true Jesus who is Lord of heaven and earth. Watch out for the dangers in such images. We can very easily fall into the trap of making God in our own image and making him too small – and we often do that to think we can control him.
And whilst we don’t have candles and incense, we do have symbols in this church – can you see any? Altar. Cross. Table of sacrifice. Communion.
The danger is when they take on a life of their own. When I think that reverence for them will bring me blessing or that irreverence will bring me cursing. If I’m in the habit of crossing myself before I take communion and don’t do it one day then it has become an idol if I think I have displeased God. When I think that drinking some water from a spring in France will heal me because it has God’s power in it and treat it as God rather than God himself it has become an idol. When I think that praying to a statue of a woman will bring results it has become an idol. If there is something that I have to see or touch or kiss or feel or take in order to bring divine blessing then it has become an idol. Which is why some churches have taken what seem extreme steps to remove such things – so that there is less danger to people. Anything that we think is essential to worship which is part of the created order is an idol and must be removed. If it’s not essential then it can stay.
But idols aren’t just confined to churches. Listen to what Paul writes in Col 3:5. Did you hear what he said – greed is idolatry. We may be too sophisticated for statues, but not for money and possessions and the lure of materialism. We want to buy, to get, to experience, to achieve more and more – thinking that is the answer to all our problems.
But it is idolatry. Why? Why is greed idolatry? Because whatever we are greedy for becomes what we trust. Like the poor fool in Is 44 we think money can save us, that possessions can save us, that position or power can save us, that we can save ourselves if we just have enough or do enough. We think that such things can be trusted for the future. They can’t. We think they will satisfy our desires and needs in ways that God cannot or will not or is not – they can’t. We may buy our lottery ticket or Lotto ticket thinking $19m will guarantee my future happiness – it won’t.
Like all idols greed deflects us from the true God. Trusting anything else implies that I’m not trusting God and this means I cannot be saved. We must bring all these things under the will of God and submit them all to his lordship, not ours.
Christians certainly can be in danger of worshipping idols. Are you?
- God is jealous
And the effect of idolatry is that it upsets God. Idol worshippers hate God because they will not accept him for who he is and who he has revealed himself to be, but who they want him to be.
We see that in the last part of this commandment. It is strange to our ears isn’t it - READ.
Jealousy for us is a negative word. It seems a destructive emotion, that can rupture relationships and lead to coveting what is not ours. We get jealous when we are displaced in someone’s love and affections; when they no longer think as highly of us as they did before and think more highly of someone else instead, and we get upset.
I spoke last week about my commitment and relationship with Melinda. I am rightly jealous for that relationship, and don’t want to share something so special with someone else. God too demands a permanent exclusive relationship with his bride, and he will not share her, that is his people, with another.
God is a jealous God. He is jealous for his own honour and reputation and character – He alone is God, he alone is worthy of all glory, praise, honour and worship, he was the one who made Israel and saved them and provided for them and gave them every thing good they had; he was the one with the exclusive right to Israel’s love and allegiance. What a horrendous thought that we might give that honour, that love, that allegiance, to something else or someone else.
And God is jealous for our own good – and when we turn to idols he sees us missing out on all the good things that only he can give us. Idols cannot save us, only God can through Jesus. But if we turn to idols, and don’t turn back to God we will miss out on eternal salvation.
And we receive instead the effects of our sin and God’s punishment on them. God is provoked to wrath by those who do not follow him with their whole heart. Rom 1 points this out as well. Even children and grandchildren get impacted by what parents do, when those parents deliberately disobey God and turn away from him. Their disbelief, and the consequences of their disbelief flow through to their children and grandchildren. What we do affects future generations.
And it’s true isn’t it – the child of the alcoholic who goes the same way; the child of divorced parents who ends up in divorce; the abused child who becomes an abuser, the child of New Age or Masonic parents or other religions who follows in their parents footsteps and finds God’s curses and wrath in their life.
But look at the balance of v6 – God’s love far exceeds his anger. Godly parents can have wonderful effects on their children.
A few examples. A young man named James Taylor had opposed Christianity for a number of years, but became a Christian just hours before his marriage. His great-grandson was J Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission.
There was a comparison done in the US some time back comparing the family of the grandparents of Jonathan Edwards who was America’s first great theologian and a deeply devoted Christian; and a criminal named Jukes who in 1677 married a licentious woman.
1344 descendants of Edwards were traced – 186 became ministers, missionaries or theology teachers; 100 became professors, over 100 lawyers and judges, 60 doctors and 14 college presidents, 86 became state senators, and 1 became Vice President of the USA.
What about Jukes? 1900 descendants of Jukes were studied. 771 were convicted criminals, 310 professional paupers; 400 were seriously injured or physically degenerated due to their lifestyles; 60 were habitual thieves and pickpockets, 39 were convicted of murder; 680 all up were admitted alcoholics; and between them all they spent 1300 years behind bars.
For those caught up in the effects of idolatry there is an alternative. To turn back to God and to receive his love. God is the God of the second chance. Israel provoked God to anger with the golden calf. Moses was so provoked that he smashed the stone tablets with the 10 commandments on it. Yet just two chapters later God writes for Moses a second set of the stone tablets, showing his mercy and compassion for people. Moses warns the people in Deut 4 that if they make idols God will cast them out of the land. But, v29, ‘if from there you seek the Lord your God you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.’ Why so? Because Moses says, God is a merciful God.
Friends, if we have been caught up in idolatry, God gives us a second chance. Turn back to him with all your heart and soul. Turn back to Jesus – the only true image of the invisible God – our only Saviour - in repentance and faith and trust. And find in him the love of God. God’s unending favour is shown to all those who worship him faithfully and truly.
Don’t fall for idolatry. It is folly and futile. Idolatry means I put something else on the throne of God. What are you putting on God’s throne in your life? What are you putting your trust in for this life and for the next? Really? Is it Jesus or something else? If it is something else, then remove it from your heart.