Idol Thoughts Idolatry takes many forms, all involve dissatisfaction with God
Visualise the Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve. Remember the climax of the fireworks extravaganza? One word — eternity — flashed forth. It was rather like the altar to an unknown god — in a city full of idols.
Paul saw images and idols aplenty in the Athens of his day. But Sydney? Full of idols? What do I mean? Buddhist idols in Chinese restaurants? Statues of Mary? Saints in stained-glass windows? If we stretch the word idol a bit we might include “worship” services at football grounds where “the congregation” sing such “hymns” as When the Saints Come Marching In. Add to the gods of sport so-called pop idols. Then there’s Fred who spends his life looking after his car. Jill lives in front of the TV. Peter spends every spare moment on the Internet. Aren’t these also forms of idolatry?
The most familiar idols in the Bible are material objects like the golden calf. It is this kind that Isaiah lampoons in Isaiah 44. A man makes an idol out of wood and worships it. Then he uses the rest of the wood to fuel his fire. The Old Testament repeatedly warns against idolatry. The concern is with images of gods and goddesses made out of wood, gold, silver and other materials.
But idolatry is not merely tied up with manufactured images. Jesus castigated his contemporaries for being “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Mt. 12:30). He is using language familiar from the Old Testament, where idolatry is especially presented as spiritual adultery. When Israel hankered after idols, God declared: “The land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord” (Hos. 1:2).
Now here’s a striking thing! By Jesus’ time the Jews had completely succeeded in eradicating physical idols. Nevertheless, Jesus regards his compatriots as thoroughly idolatrous. Why? In Matthew 12:39 Jesus declared, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign.” Here he takes us to the heart of spiritual adultery, to the core of idolatry. God had revealed himself conclusively to the Jews in Jesus. But the Jews were not satisfied with this. They wanted to access reality through another route — they sought a miraculous sign. So, first and foremost, idolatry is a rejection of God made known.
My children do not know a friend of my youth. It is preposterous to say they reject my friend because they don’t seek relationship with him. People can only commit idolatry if they are rejecting what they already know. Thus many find it hard to see themselves as idolaters. They know so little of the God of the Bible.
But, as Romans 1 shows, God, the Creator-Lord, has plainly revealed himself to all people in creation. Intellectual problems may be genuine. But they have never stopped people from knowing God. The fundamental problem is moral. Inexcusably, people prefer “a lie” to the revealed “truth”. They prefer to worship created things rather than the Creator. Paul also portrays idolatry as a rejection of God made known.
John’s first epistle climaxes with this command: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21). John has in mind everything he has previously said. In verse 20 he calls Jesus “the true God and eternal life”. He says Jesus came “so that we may know him who is true”, that is God. For John too idolatry is a rejection of God made known.
The Golden Calf reveals the same principle. The Israelites bowed down before it and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up out of Egypt” (Ex. 32:8). But God introduced the Ten Commandments with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2). When the Israelites made the golden calf they turned their backs on this revelation.
Consider the Ten Commandments themselves. Remember, the spotlight first falls on God made known. In the first two commands, God prohibits his people from getting their understanding of life from rival sources — idols. For, in the ancient world people sought guidance from various gods by means of such idols. By contrast, God has revealed himself in his name. Hence the third command. To blaspheme God’s name means to reject God’s revelation of himself. The fourth command required the Israelites to set aside the sabbath to remember God’s revelation of himself as Creator (Ex. 20:11) and Rescuer (Deut. 5:15). The fifth command follows on. Parents were the custodians of God’s revelation. It is their job to pass on this revelation to their children and grandchildren (Deut. 6:7-9).
Central to the Ten Commandments, then, is the greatness of God’s self-revelation. Nothing must spoil this. Idolatry must be banned because, first and foremost, it is a rejection of God made known.
God has clearly made himself known in Christ. We can know him through his Word, the Scriptures. At its most basic level idolatry takes place when people have a worldview or belief system that replaces this revelation.
Some popular ways of talking about idolatry are off track. A person spends an inordinate amount of time and money on his motor bike. People say, “That bike is Jim’s idol.” Many sit for hours on end in front of the TV screen. We say, “There they are, worshipping at the family shrine!” Such things may well be symptoms of deep spiritual problems. However, we cloud the issue when we simplistically refer to such preoccupations as idols. Idolatry rejects revelation. Idolatry substitutes a worldview which clashes with what God has made known about himself.
Not only non-Christians are guilty of idolatry. Christians commit idolatry when they venerate a Christ who does not match the Christ of the Bible. Consider how much Christ spoke about hell, yet many Christians find such a Christ uncomfortable. They prefer to live with a Christ who says only positive things. This is idolatry — a rejection of God made known in Christ.
Such a rejection results in a degraded view of humanity. We saw this in Romans 1. People swap “the glory of the incorruptible God for the image of corruptible man”. The movie The Bicentennial Man concerns itself with the question: what is essential humanity? The philosophy presented intersects with many contemporary perspectives. There is not a whisper about God in the movie. The Bicentennial Man promotes idolatry. It is blind to God’s self-revelation in Christ. Jesus is the True Man. He embodies humanity as God intended it.
Take also the common reliance on a combination of science and magic. Margaret Wertheim recently summarised a 1991 Gallup poll of American beliefs: 52 per cent believe in astrology, 35 per cent in ghosts, 19 per cent in witches, 42 per cent in communication with the dead and 46 per cent in extrasensory perception. Postmodern thinking still venerates science but is more sensitive to its limitations. Now where science and reason leave off, magic kicks in. But underlying all of this is a rejection of God’s self-revelation.
The Bible does condemn the idolatry of the world. But it especially attacks idolatry among God’s people. Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians, “Flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14).
Many Christians are not content to base their lives on God’s word but want special guidance and supernormal insights. For example, they wait till they feel good about a course of action. They believe this feeling comes from God. Often this is presented as if it represented a higher spirituality. In fact, it constitutes yet another species of idolatry. It is a failure to be satisfied with God as he has chosen to make himself known.
Avoidance of idolatry is not achieved by following a list of don’ts. There is only one way to conquer idolatry — to delight in God. A man or woman who delights in his or her spouse will not be tempted to commit adultery. The person who is thoroughly satisfied with God will not commit spiritual adultery. All idolatry implies dissatisfaction with God.
Be careful here. Idolaters may believe they are satisfied with the gods they have adopted. Spiritual satisfaction is the guarantee, it is delight in God made known. It is taking supreme pleasure in the God known to us in Scripture alone. The opposite of idolatry is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism).
Yes, Sydney is a city full of idols. So is almost every other settlement in Australia. The God of the Bible is a God to be enjoyed “forever”. When you think of eternity flashing forth, delight in the God of eternity. Delight in Jesus who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).