The Sin of Idolatry (Part 1)
When the word "idolatry" is mentioned, most religious folks probably call to mind a debunked religious system that is outdated and not generally practiced. Why ought the worshipper of God be concerned with the sin of idolatry? The truth is that there are many in the religious world today practice idolatry. People of the Hindu religion have various wooden and stone carvings and manifestations of their deities. Buddhists typically have a "Buddha" statue to which they give offerings of one kind or another. And in recent years there has been a revival of paganism which goes hand in hand with idolatry. Even some who profess Christianity have unwittingly substituted idol worship for the worship of the living God. The fact of the matter is that idolatry is still alive and well in our world today.
From reading the Old Testament, one would think that the sin of idolatry would be clearly enough defined that those who believe in the Bible wouldn't have anything to do with practicing it today. Leviticus 19:4 states, "Turn ye not unto idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods: I am the LORD your God." Leviticus 26:1 says, "Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God." And in the Ten Commandments God says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Exodus 20:3-5). We get the picture from these verses that an idol is any carved, fashioned, or molded image that is in the likeness of anything that exists in heaven or earth which has been erected for devotees to serve or worship.
What kind of service or worship would one offer to an idol? The scriptures are clear. One is not to make an idol (Leviticus 19:4, 26:1). One is not to follow an idol (1 Kings 21:26). One is not to bow down to an idol (Leviticus 26:1). One is not to pray to an idol (Isaiah 44:17, 45:20). One is not to offer sacrifices to idols (Hosea 13:2). One is not to seek idols (Isaiah 19:3). One is not to bless an idol (Isaiah 66:3). One is not to set up an idol (Leviticus 26:1). One is not to lift up one's eyes to idols (Ezekiel 18:6, 12, 15, 33:25). One is not to praise an idol (Isaiah 42:8). Any kind of religious devotion that one may consider is forbidden in the concepts of worshipping or serving an idol.
Unlike the Old Testament writers, who give us multiple detailed descriptions of idolatry, New Testament writers expect one to understand the definition of the term from the Old Testament (Romans 15:4). What we find in the New Testament is the simple prohibition of idolatry. The Apostles commanded Gentile Christians to abstain from the pollution of idols in Acts 15:20, 29. Idolaters are people with whom we are to have no fellowship (1 Corinthians 15:11). Those who practice such will not inherit the kingdom of God according to 1 Corinthians 6:9. Idolatry is listed among the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:20. And in 1 John 5:21, John says, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." Idolatry is explicitly forbidden under the New Covenant.
Between the Old Testament and the New, there isn't much room for one to practice idolatry. However, when people want to do something, they will think of all kinds of excuses, rationalities, and justifications. In the next article, we'll take a look at one major religion's "rationale" for what amounts to nothing more than idolatry.
The Sin of Idolatry (Part 2)
One would think that those who profess to believe in the God of the Bible wouldn't practice idolatry; however, it is commonly practiced among the Catholic Church. Not too long ago, I visited a Cathedral in Brazil. In this Cathedral, there was a carved wooden image of "Mary" that had been found in a river several hundred years ago (evidently someone had made this statue and then tossed it into the river as rubbish). The entire Cathedral was built near the site of this image on account of this event. Inside the Cathedral, the image had an honored place. Members of the Catholic Church there had placed on its head a crown and a robe. There was a security guard near the image to protect it.
The whole scene reminded me of the words of the Old Testament prophets as they exposed the folly of idolatry. Habakkuk wrote, "Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach! Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it" (Habakkuk 2:19). Isaiah said, "They that make a graven image are all of them vanity; and their delectable things shall not profit; and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed … And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?" (Isaiah 44:9-19).
There are also those who seek to defend such practices. They suggest that they are not actually worshipping these things, merely "venerating" them. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states regarding these idols:
The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, "the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype," and "whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it." The honor paid to sacred images is a "respectful veneration," not the adoration due to God alone … Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.
Evidently the Catholics need to learn the second commandment because that one states, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." And they also need to learn the second part of the second commandment because that states, "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Exodus 20:4-5). Did God say, "except if your worship is REALLY directed toward me?" Did God say, "except if the image is of me and you're not really worshipping it in your own heart?" Did God say, "except if your worship doesn't terminate in the image?" In fact, he said just the opposite in Isaiah 42:8, "I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images." God does not give His glory to graven images, ever!
What did the prophets say? Hear Isaiah: "They that make a graven image are all of them vanity" (Isaiah 44:9a). All graven images are VANITY! "Who hath formed a god, or molten a graven image that is profitable for nothing?" (Isaiah 44:10) All graven images are profitable FOR NOTHING! Hear what Jeremiah has to say, "Every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them." (Jeremiah 10:14 and 51:17). They are falsehoods! Hear Habakkuk, "What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?" (Habakkuk 2:18). They are no profit; they are teachers of lies. What does Paul say? "… we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one" (1 Corinthians 8:4). They are nothing! There is only ONE God. The plain teaching of scripture utterly refutes the Catholic rationalization for having "images."
So why have graven images at all? There can only be one reason. To satisfy the fleshly desire to have something that one can see and touch. This is exactly what the people of Israel desired after they came out of Egypt. When Moses was up in the mountain for forty days, Aaron made a golden calf. Exodus 32:4-5 state, "And he received [the gold] at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD." Aaron made an idol. He proclaimed that idol the gods that brought them out of Egypt. He then said that the next day there would be a feast to the LORD. Aaron did exactly what the Catholics claim to do today. He made an idol and then proposed to worship God through the idol. But what did God say about this? God said that they had corrupted themselves (Exodus 32:7) and that they had turned aside from the commandment (Exodus 32:8). It was sinful then and it is sinful now.
The Sin of Idolatry (Part 3)
In looking at the sin of idolatry, we've noticed some of the more brazen forms of such activity. However, idolatry doesn't have to be in the form of a carved image or statue. Idolatry is anything that monopolizes our attention away from God. It could be television, fishing, golf, family, our jobs, the Internet, and any other thing that would interfere with our relationship with God; anything can be an idol. It is important, therefore, that we identify anything that would hinder our relationship with God and take appropriate steps to remove that stumbling block from our life.
Ezekiel prophesied to individuals who were guilty of setting up idols in their hearts in Ezekiel 14:1-11. These individuals appeared to be seeking God by coming to inquire of God's will (Ezekiel 14:3). However, God told Ezekiel that they had come hypocritically. They really had not abandoned their idolatry; it was still foremost in their own minds. So while their external actions appeared to be correct, their hearts were still wrong because they had not abandoned their idolatry in their thinking. They were placing something else before God in their own minds.
Let's note that some attitudes are inherently idolatrous. Colossians 3:5 makes it clear that covetousness is idolatry. Covetousness is a desire to gain something, anything, to the point that we would be willing to abandon what is right to get whatever it is that we desire. When we are Covetous, in essence, we are placing something in the world (whether it be an object or a person [i.e. Exodus 20:17]) above God; we are desiring some thing more than we desire God and such is the essence of idolatry. Consider as an example of such behavior the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-23). He had placed God high up in his priority list. He had kept God's commandments from his youth. However, when Jesus told him to sell all of his goods and give them to the poor, he went away sorrowful. God may have been high on his priority list, but God wasn't number one. He loved something more than he loved God.
Idolatry can be either external (outward display of worship to a graven image) or internal (putting God in second place in our heart) or both external and internal. This is in essence why we have what Jesus calls the first and great commandment. "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength…" (Mark 12:30). If God is first in our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, then both the internal and the external are focused upon loving God instead of other things. Jesus made it clear that even physical concerns such as food, clothing, and shelter ought not to take priority in our mind. It is His kingdom and righteousness that always comes first (Matthew 6:33).
Physical idolatry is still a problem in many parts of the world today, and even among some who profess to be Christians. However, spiritual idolatry is likely the bigger temptation in our culture. We are surrounded by a society that places a high value upon possessions and bombarded each day with appeals to pursue such possessions. In such a society we must constantly be aware of the condition of our heart to ensure that we do not become complacent and succumb to putting God less than first in our lives. By understanding our priorities and analyzing our decisions through a Christ centered perspective we can maintain the kind of relationship with God that He desires for us to have with Him.