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Know Your Idols
In his book We Become What We Worship, G. K. Beale states the thesis of his book saying, “What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration.”
Because we are created in the image of God, everyone is always, without exception, reflecting either God or a god. If we do not reflect our Creator to our restoration then we will reflect creation to our ruin.
You are what you eat
This explains why one of the recurrent themes in the Bible is that idols are deaf, mute, and dumb, and so are idol worshipers who do not hear from God, speak to God, or spiritually see God. Perhaps the most legendary account of idolatry in all of Scripture is the worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32. There, Israel is portrayed mockingly as rebellious cattle because they worshiped a calf and thus became like it. Just like a stubborn cow that refuses to go in the right direction, idolatrous Israel is “stiff-necked” (Exodus 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; 10:16; 31:27).
We come by idolatry naturally
Idolatry began with our first father, Adam. Because Adam was committed to something over God, namely himself, he was guilty of idolatry. Therefore, Adam set in motion a course of history in which the most common created thing we worship in idolatry is ourselves; we live for ourselves and our perceived glory, which is actually our shame, in priority over God.
In the New Testament Gospels, the idol that is revered by the Jews and renounced by Jesus is religion. Even though there are not many explicit references to Jewish idol worship in the Gospels, Beale argues that it is clear that the generation of Jews at the time of Christ were at least as sinful as their spiritual forefathers: “The Jewish nation took pride in the fact that they were not like the nations who bowed down to stone and wooden images. Yet what is also clear is that the majority of the Israelite nation was at least as sinful as their forbearers, especially because they crucified the Son of God (Matthew 23:29-38).” Israel worshiped their dead tradition rather than the living God according to his living Word.
A building shouldn't be your idol
Moving on to the book of Acts, Luke presents the fact that the temple actually became an idol for theocratic Israel. Jesus exposed this idolatry when he said he would destroy the temple. Rather than letting Jesus destroy the temple, the religious leaders chose to instead destroy Jesus. They preferred the temple as their place of meeting with God over God himself in their midst. Subsequently, God had the temple destroyed in 70 A.D.
Idolatry damages every category of relationship we have and is a deadly cancer in a church body and society as a whole.
Similarly, in our own day, religious people continue in various idolatries when they elevate their denomination, church building, liturgical order, Bible translation, worship music style, pastor, theological system, favorite author, or ministry program to a place where it is a replacement mediator for Jesus and that in which their faith rests to keep them close to God. This also explains why any change to the tradition of a religious person is met with such hostility—people tend to cling to their idols, including their church buildings, which are worshiped as every bit as sacred as the temple was.
Know your idols
Like the Jews in Jesus’ day, Christians must be continually aware of their religious idols. Religious idols include truth, gifts, and morality. These are things people trust in addition to Jesus Christ for their salvation, not unlike the Judaizers who added circumcision to the gospel and were rebuked by Paul in Galatians as heretics preaching a false gospel.
- Truth idolatry is perhaps most common among those who are most committed to sound doctrine and biblical study. These people are prone to think that they are saved because of the rightness of their belief rather than the simple fact that Jesus died for them. Religious people who idolize truth are often guilty of the rankest sense of superiority. They continually enjoy sarcastically making fun of their opponents and find great pleasure on the Internet, where to be a well-known blogger generally means you have to be a truth idolater who feeds the idolatry of religious mockers for whom their ideology has become their idol.
- Gift idolatry is perhaps most common among those most gifted and capable in ministry service who mistake spiritual gifts for spiritual maturity and spiritual fruit. These people commonly think that they are saved because of the great gifts they possess and that any ministry they have accomplished—and subsequently their faith—rests more on the fact that God is using them than that Jesus died for them. Sadly, this is common among Bible preachers who have made their pulpit into an idol where they go for identity and joy. They seek the approval of their hearers who cheer them on, and eventually the pastor whose idol is preaching becomes the idol of his listening flock, whose devotion to him is nearly god-like, and he becomes virtually sinless in their eyes.
- Morality idolatry is perhaps most common among the most well-behaved and decent religious people. These people often think that they are saved because they have lived a decently moral and good life of devotion and obedience rather than seeing themselves as sinners by nature whose sin is serious enough to require Jesus’ atoning death. Such people are much like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son—they are offended when grace is given to repentant sinners because it is undeserved. Their attitude in such moments reveals their idol of self-performance; their ultimate trust resides in their performance and not in Jesus.
Idolatry leads to evil
One of the most lengthy treatments of idolatry in all of the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul lists idolatry as participation with demons that leads to all kinds of evil, including gluttony, drunkenness, sexual sin, and grumbling. Indeed, the more we commit ourselves to our idol the more we become one with it and increasingly like it, to our destruction. Furthermore, as 1 Corinthians 10 makes clear, our idolatry also strains our relationships with fellow Christians, gives a false witness to non-Christians, and causes others to be tempted to join us in idolatrous sin. Subsequently, idolatry damages every category of relationship we have and is a deadly cancer in a church body and society as a whole.
Trust in the Creator, not creation
Beale concludes his biblical survey of idolatry in the book of Revelation, noting how those who worship idols are referred to as “earth dwellers” (Revelation 8:13; 13:8, 14; 14:6–9; 17:2, 8). According to Beale, the “earth dwellers” in Revelation cannot look beyond this earth for their security, which means that they trust in some part of the creation instead of the Creator for their ultimate welfare. Thus people are called “earth dwellers” because this expresses the object of their trust and perhaps of their very being, in that they have become part of the earthly system in which they find security—they have become like it. Because they commit themselves to some aspect of the earth, they become earthy and come to be known as “earth dwellers.”
Jesus does not exist to help us worship idols
Christians must never forget we too are prone to the same kinds of idolatry as the “earth dwellers.” Religious idolatry is often the most pernicious of all. Religious idolatry uses God for health, wealth, success, and the like; in this grotesque inversion of the gospel, God is used for our glory, as if not only are we supposed to worship ourselves, but God is also to be a worshiper of us. This kind of false gospel preaching is evident whenever Jesus is presented as the means by which an idolater can obtain their idol. Examples include promises that Jesus will make you rich, happy, healed, joyfully married, parentally successful, and the like, as if Jesus exists to aid our worship of idols.
Adapted from Doctrine, by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears.