Friday, May 11, 2012

Idolatry: Image Worship

Jesus Christ Largest Statue in the world lightning picPaul first uses the word εἰδωλολατρία in his writings to the churches in Galatian around the late 40s A.D. Paul classifies this practice among the deeds of the flesh, literally, ὰ ἔργα τῆς σαρκός. The word does not enjoy good company. It is found among other words like, immorality, impurity, sensuality, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, and carousing. I don’t know about you, but when I read through the list, I find words that I think are not really that bad, not really, at least not to me. Others, to be honest, I do find really, really disturbing. My hypocrisy remains a constant threat to spiritual growth. However, these characteristics are not my creation. These words describe behaviors of the sinful nature. They are as serious as the word itself. It does not matter if I find all of them equally offensive of serious. What matters is that God does. οἱ τὰ τοιαῦτα πράσσοντες βασιλείαν θεοῦ οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν. This Greek phrase literally says “the ones practicing these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This Greek participle is from the word prassw and it appears approximately 39 times in the NT. It is used here as a present active participle denoting the imperfective aspect which indicates that Paul sees behavior as “in the act,” or “happening as we speak.” The idea suggests a way of life, a present manner of living.

The next reference Paul made regarding the word “idolatry” was to the church at Corinth. Paul commands the Corinthian church to flee from idolatry in I Cor. 10:14. Paul writes this command in the middle of ethical instructions around Christians behavior even to the detail of how the Corinthian believer should relate to idol worship and meat sold in the market place that had been sacrificed to idols. In this context, idolatry is found in the company of immorality, tempting God, and grumbling. This is not the best company.

The next use of the word Idolatry is located in Col. 3:5. Paul says, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” The Greek phrase does not translate “which amounts to idolatry.” The Greek phrase, ἥτις ἐστὶν εἰδωλολατρία translates to “which is idolatry.” Douglas Moo comments as follows:

Clearly, then, we are dealing with a customary cluster of terms and ideas. Jewish writers habitually traced the various sins of the Gentiles back to the root problem of idolatry; and especially was this true of sexual sins. Putting some other “god” in the place of the true God of the Bible leads to the panoply of sexual sins and perversions that characterized the Gentile world. Paul reflects this tradition here: sexual sins arise because people have an uncontrolled desire for more and more “experiences” and “pleasures”; and such a desire is nothing less than a form of idolatry. It is not necessary, then, to suppose that the Colossian Christians were particularly guilty of such sins. Rather, the list reflects the kinds of sins to which Gentiles who came to Christ were generally prone.”[1]

Paul more forcefully says to the church at Ephesus 5:5 that an idolatrous man has no inheritance in the Kingdom of God. It seems obvious that idolatry has several forms. It is equally clear that idolatry is an egregious behavior that stands condemned by God in all its forms.

The final mention of idolatry is found in I Peter 4:3. There, Peter uses aqemitoiV. This adjective relates to the laws of canonical or accepted decency. Once again, the word is located with words like sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, and drinking parties. Peter is praising the believers for not running in these circles any longer and encouraging them to press on.

It is clear that idolatry comes in several forms. It is also clear that all idolatry is condemned by the God who created us. Moreover, idolatry is among several vices in the NT that even people with questionable morals might shun. In short, idolatry is unacceptable behavior and any person who lives in idolatry has no part in the kingdom of God.

Since idolatry has so many forms, it is a good idea for us to recognize what idolatry looks like in modern culture. Romans 1:21-25 gives us a great picture of idolatry. Idolatry involves refusal to honor God as God, to adopt futile speculations about God, to have a foolish heart darkened in understanding, exchanging the glory of God for an image in the form of corruptible man, birds, and animals. Idolatry is exchanging the truth of God for a lie, worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. The New Testament was penned in one of the most idolatrous cultures in history. Sad as it may seem, American culture has become a not-too-distant competitor.

When we refuse to honor God as the Creator and Sovereign Lord that He is, we commit idolatry. We do this when we adopt theories about creation that deny God His proper credit. When we invent theories that run contrary to Scripture, to God’s revelation about how things really are, we commit idolatry. When we adopt views on life that are contrary to the Created order, we commit idolatry. We are guilty of idolatry when we adopt views on sex that are contrary to God’s design. A discursive survey of American culture reveals that it is not at all a Christian culture, contrary to what it claims and contrary to what the rest of the world might think.

On the issue of Creation, most Americans believe in the theory of evolution, robbing God the credit due Him for His marvelous handiwork. On the issue of marriage, most Americans place little value in the marriage covenant, abandoning it for all sorts of trivial reasons. On the issue of sex, most Americans pursue and engage in illicit sexual behavior rather than reserving this practice for the marriage bed. In addition, an alarming number engage in illicit affairs. This behavior despises God’s most intimate institution and the most intimate act, which He designed to honor Him in a very specific way. When it comes to life, American culture trivializes life through the murder of unborn children. God created man in His image and man responds by butchering the innocent. In so doing, man considers his opinion of life more important than God’s design, and commits idolatry. We also commit idolatry when we adopt views of knowing, reality, and ethics that are contrary to what God has revealed in Scripture. When God says we can and must know truth and man says we cannot, we displace God through our own arrogance and commit idolatry.

The second commandment contains the prohibition against Idolatry. The Hebrew word is פסל. The idea is an image that is set up for man to serve and worship. The issue is that anything other than God can be an idol. It isn’t the wood or the metal or even the position we take literally before the idol that constitutes wickedness. It is the heart attitude that indicts us long before we build the statue or reshape out body before it. Anything that replaces God in any area of our life is an idol. Anytime we abandon God’s ways, His thoughts, His words, His knowledge of how things really are, His revelation, we commit idolatry.

When we move God from His rightful position, something inevitably takes His place. Make no mistake about it; America is not a Christian nation. She is a godless society. Idolatry is the practice of replacing God with an image we believe to be superior to Him in some way. We unavoidably commit idolatry when we think our ideas and ways superior to what the Scripture reveals about God. When our thinking deviates from God’s revelation, we consider our thoughts higher and ways better than God’s design. Every believer is saved out of the sin of idolatry, to serve the living God. When we look at the world, we must see ourselves. For we are all a bunch of idolaters saved by grace.

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 258.

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