Are Christians Guilty of Idolatry?
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Hard Questions: Are Christians Guilty of Idolatry?
Could you be practicing idolatry without realizing it? Discover enlightening biblical truth.
[Gary Petty] A number of years ago, I accompanied my son on a visit to a Hindu temple as part of a college comparative religion class he was taking. We watched as worshippers gathered in front of statues of various gods and goddesses, some shaped like animals, one in human female form with multiple arms, while priests made offerings of vegetables.
Now many Christians would say that Hindu rituals are idolatry and forbidden in the Bible. Other Christians claim that all religions are just different cultural ways to connect to the Creator.
On Beyond Today, we believe that the Bible is the revealed Word of God. Today’s subject isn’t one we can soften with political correctness. God strongly condemns idolatry in both the Old and New Testaments. The apostle John wrote, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
So what is idolatry? Why did God condemn ancient Israel for worshipping idols? Are the use of Christian icons and statues idolatry? Why did the apostle Paul tell early Christians to “flee idolatry?”
We’re going to challenge you today by dealing with a hard question: “Are Christians Guilty of Idolatry?”
[Announcer] Join our host Gary Petty and his guests as they help you understand your future on Beyond Today!
[Gary] The apostle Paul walked through the congested streets of Athens, Greece—the philosophical and religious hub of the Roman Empire. In his many travels he was used to seeing statues of Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods and goddesses. But in Athens, he was distressed by the sheer number of idols.
Paul stood in the Areopagus—the amphitheater of the philosophers—and told them of an UNKNOWN GOD—the God of the Bible.
He looked into the faces of those educated and religious men and proclaimed, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:24-25).
These religious philosophers were known for endlessly debating the nature of the gods, but Paul’s next words, it really caught their attention. His message contained a stern warning from this Unknown God. Paul said, “...we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness...” (Acts 17:29-31).
Let’s read that again because this is the center of what we are talking about today. Paul says, “...we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness...” (Acts 17:29-31).
God judges idolatry as evil. He commands those who practice it to “repent” or change and follow Him. But why does God take such a severe stance against idolatry?
First, let’s define idolatry. Primarily, idolatry is the worship of an image, statue or picture as a representation of deities. Now it can also mean the excessive adoration of anything that we hold more important than God.
Ancient Israel was condemned and punished by God for idolatry. God revealed Himself to them in miraculous and incredible, wondrous ways. He sent them prophets, priests and leaders, and still, they were attracted to the worship of Baal, and Moloch and many other gods and goddesses of the peoples who lived around them. This worship involved the use of idols to represent the mystical powers of the spirit world.
The Israelites had been exposed to the reality of the Creator God. So why was idolatry—the images of gods represented in stone and wood—so attractive to them?
You see, answering this question can help us understand why many Christians today are guilty of idolatry.
It is important to recognize that the Israelite worship of Canaanite idols didn’t mean that they gave up worshipping the God of the Bible—cause they didn’t. They simply mixed the religious ideas and forms of worship together to create an inclusive religion. You see, all gods, all religions, were simply different ways to connect with the spirit world.
Does it sound a little bit familiar? This is the same message of New Age Christianity—a religion that is ultimately anti-Bible and anti-God of the Bible. Do not take the subject of idolatry lightly.
So what were some of the reasons why the Israelites were attracted to idols?
1. Well first, idolatry is an attempt to fulfill the human need for a spiritual connection.
You see, idolatry contains mysticism, secret knowledge, superstition and a “feeling” of connection with spiritual forces. The idol represents the unseen god and goddesses and contains mystical powers from that god. It is important to recognize that the emotional experiences associated with idolatry can be very intense. They can seem very real.
2. A second reason is that idolatry is an attempt to exert power over the gods and over nature.
Idolatry involves pleasing the gods or goddesses so that the practitioner can receive divine favor. Perform the right, appropriate ritual and you will have a good growing season. Say the appropriate prayer and the goddess is required to listen. Give the appropriate amount of money and the god of the idol is required to forgive you, or forgive your loved ones, of wrong doings.
3. A third reason the ancient Israelites were attracted to idolatry was the sexual freedom it afforded.
God limited sexual activity to a marriage, between a man and a woman. Many of the ancient pagan religions celebrated sexual freedom even sometimes including temple prostitution as an act of worship. This is one reason why the Israelites tried to mix religions together, so that they could claim loyalty to the God of Israel while reveling in sexual freedom.
The Bible is very specific in its condemnation of idolatry. God forbids idolatry because it perverts our understanding of His uniqueness as Creator and His relationship to us through both His grace and His authority.
In Deuteronomy 4 God reminded the Israelites of how He had given them the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. Now listen to what He told them, “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19).
Worship can be a very intense emotional experience, but the power and effects of worship originate in whom we worship—not from the superstitious use of icons and images and idols.
What do you think of when you hear the word “worship”?
In English, the word “worship” is used many times to mean singing of praise. But the Hebrew word translated “worship” means to “bow down”. It means to show total subjection. God declares that His uniqueness, His power, His goodness require that we bow down, or submit ourselves to Him.
Ritual idolatry is an attempt to please the spirits and motivate them to do the will of the person doing the ritual. Now listen to this, true worship of the Creator God is the desire to submit to His will in Spirit and truth.
The Creator of the universe is omnipresent. He possesses all power. He is absolute goodness. He is not bound by physical laws like you and I are. Idolatry denigrates the spiritual and awe-inspiring nature of the Great God. It is an attempt to recreate God in the image of His creation.
But if Christians aren’t careful, they can fall into a dangerous way of thinking. It goes something like this: God loves everyone. God is not exclusive. Therefore He can be discovered in all cultures and all religions—images of Vesta, or honoring Mother Earth or the Easter Island statues are all just different ways to relate to God.
Well here’s what King David wrote almost three thousand years ago, “But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; Eyes they have, but they do not see; They have ears, but they do not hear; Noses they have, but they do not smell; They have hands, but they do not handle; Feet they have, but they do not walk; Nor do they mutter through their throat. Those who make them are like them; So is everyone who trusts in them” (Psalm 115:3-8).
David wrote of the absolute futility of worshipping gods who don’t exist. The Bible teaches that “there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live...” (1 Corinthians 8:6). It is impossible to worship the true God through the statues and rituals of gods who do not exist. The God of the Bible is clear on this issue—His followers are to avoid all pagan idols.
Now this brings us to the hard question: Can Christians be guilty of the sin of idolatry?
If we really understand the biblical teaching—idolatry is one of the most common sins in the Christian world. Christians commit idolatry in two ways.
So, let’s go back to the definition of idolatry—the first definition is the worship of an image, statue, picture as a representation of deities. Many Christians commit idolatry in this way and don’t even think about it.
Here’s where you and I must do some intense, prayerful self-examination in the light of the Scripture. Let’s look at one example of idolatry practiced in many Christian churches.
For many Christians today there is a divine being, a being who through the Immaculate Conception is without sin, a being who acts as intercessor and mediator between human beings and God—and this divine being is represented with statues and images and venerated with prayers, lighting of candles and offerings. I’m talking about the representations of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
I’m not denigrating the importance of Mary in God’s plan as the mother of the Messiah—but think about what the Bible teaches us. Jesus is the Son of God. He sits on the heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father in power and majesty. The Scripture says that His face shines like the sun and we are instructed to pray in His name. And He is called Intercessor, Mediator and Redeemer.
We receive the privilege to enter into a relationship with God through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus because the Son of God is divine and sinless. Or, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “[God] who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all...” (1 Timothy 2:3-6).
Now the Bible honors Mary, but nowhere is she declared to be instrumental in the intercession or mediation between God and humanity.
On Beyond Today we don’t wish to belittle anyone’s sincerity or desire to connect with God. But we do seek to follow Jesus’ teaching when He said, “...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).
The often made argument is that the statues of Mary are just “visual aids” in the worship of God. If we worship God in Spirit and truth, why would we need images—the very things forbidden by God in the second of the Ten Commandments?
From Mount Sinai God declared: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God...” (Exodus 20:4-5).
Christians who worship the God of Sinai need no pictures or images to relate to the invisible God. Christians need no heavenly intercessor except Jesus Christ. Christians need no heavenly mediator except Jesus Christ.
A little earlier, we discussed how idolatry is attractive in its attempt to fulfill the human need for a spiritual connection. Praying before a statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus can give you a sense of mysticism, a “feeling” of connection with spiritual forces. Remember, the emotional experiences associated with idolatry can be very intense and still be very wrong.
In addition to the obvious use of statues, there is another way Christians are guilty of committing idolatry, and this second way is a little more subtle. We have to be very careful about this one.
We may not worship the images of false gods, but are we guilty of idolizing materialism, status, work, pleasure?
You know, it’s really possible to make anything an idol by making it more important than God in our lives. We can make a husband, a wife, a child, a job, education, a house, possessions, car, land, status even entertainment. We can make all that an idol.
And this is the point Jesus’ makes in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
Jesus said that we can’t live divided lives. We can’t pursue God’s will in our lives while expending all of our time and energy trying to obtain more and more things. This form of idolatry can be very difficult to recognize because of the sort of stressful urgency we have because of our emotional, physical and spiritual needs and our desires. We are driven by those things.
So here is a soul searching question you need to ask, I need to ask: How do I spend my time, energy and resources?
Come on, have you ever been frustrated because you wish you had more time for prayer and Bible study and to serve God, but your time is consumed by the demands of your job and the weight of credit card bills? When you finally get some time off, you fill the hours with video games or a trip to the lake to try out a new boat, but it’s all just so frustrating and you just feel listless.
Our relationship with God requires daily interaction—like all relationships, our interaction with God requires both quantity time and quality time. This is why the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:5 equates covetousness—this desire for things—with idolatry. When we have, when any of us have an obsessive and this desire for anything, even something that’s good, we can make that thing, that person, that experience more important than God. We are guilty of creating a false idol.
Now before we go to the Beyond Today panel to discuss how idolatry hinders our relationship with God, let’s review what we’ve covered today:
1. First of all, idolatry is the worship of an image, statue or picture as a representation of deities. The use of idols in worship is forbidden in both the Old and New Testaments.
2. Two: Although Mary, the mother of Jesus is honored in the Bible, there is no biblical support for her veneration or that she is in anyway a co-intercessor or co-mediator with Jesus Christ. To use statues of Mary and to pray to her is a form of idolatry.
3. And number three: Idolatry can also mean the excessive adoration of anything that we hold more important than God. And this is a much more subtle form of idolatry.
We’re joined by fellow Beyond Today presenters, Darris McNeely and Steve Myers. It’s important for us to discuss, how does idolatry really distort our understanding of God?
[Darris] Well what happens with idolatry, Gary, is human beings take something and put it into the image of God whether it is a stone, obelisk, some type of an image of a woman or of a man, as in the ancient world. And the reason God said not to do it, was because it is totally impossible to capture the full nature and character of God in anything that is spatial or of any substance. And, as human beings we tend to put our own values, we put our own ideas into that of a god, and none of that begins to even come close to the nature and the character of God and therefore, we become blinded.
[Steve] You can see why God would say something like that. As almighty, omnipotent, all-knowing God, how can any object begin to capture what He is all about? And that just would get in the way of our worship of Him, so He says don’t do it. Don’t do it because that does not represent who I am.
[Gary] Right. But let’s be honest here with people who see venerating Mary or a crucifix as part of their relationship with God. And what they would say is that’s a visual aid. They realize that’s not Mary. They realize Jesus isn’t still hanging on the cross. But they see that as a visual aid. How do you deal with that? How do you answer that?
[Darris] Well again the visual aids we feel we have to have become something that replaces really what God is. And in the two cases you mentioned, Mary, while as you said in your program, Mary is honored as the mother of Jesus Christ and she does in Scripture there is a proper role for her, but she is not an intercessor for mankind. She is not to be worshipped as God, which is the actual theology there. And again, there’s no way that that can take the place of God. In fact, it gets in-between us and God no matter how sincere people are.
The idea of a cross as the symbol of Christianity was something that came much, much later in the story. There’s no way to even determine whether Christ actually was on a cross or on an upright stake. Historically, it could have been either one. But again, it gets in the way of really understanding who and what God is.
[Steve] I think that’s a great point, when you consider what the Bible says about it. What does God’s Word say? Are there any examples in the Bible where we can use these things as an inspiration, you might say, to worship God or are we just fooling ourselves in the fact that they really are idols? Because when you look at the Bible, you’re not going to find an example of a stained-glass window, or a crucifix or a mother Mary, or whatever it may be. I think you find just the opposite.
You find items throughout the Bible that people tried to use as a representation of God that actually got in the way of their relationship with God. So whether it was the Ark of the Covenant, whether it was the Temple itself—that became a big image and an idol in a sense, that well, as long as we have the Temple or as long as we have the Ark of the Covenant then God must be with us and we must be worshipping God correctly. But that was false! And it actually led the people into captivity. And so I think the biblical example is just the opposite of using items to somehow help us worship God. It’s not biblical.
[Gary] Let’s face it, there’s a whole lot more subtle form of idolatry, which Paul specifically talks about. And that is all of us have to be careful that we don’t make anything, place it between us and God, and it becomes an idol. So how do we deal with this covetousness as idolatry? How do we deal with that?
[Darris] Well, we first recognize that the modern things that we do covet—status, success, money, five cars, a bigger house, whatever it is, is our modern forms of idolatry. And they then become those matters which we form a deeper identity and relationship with then we do with God, and they get in the way because they become the things that give us worth and identity.
[Gary] I hope you’ve been challenged to look further into what I’ve covered on today’s program. To help you do this we have a free Bible study aid titled: The Ten Commandments. This valuable booklet will help you better understand the standards and values God revealed long ago at Mount Sinai which have important meaning for all those who want to worship Him in Spirit and truth.
To request your free copy of this important study aid, just call us toll free, right now: 1-888-886-8632. That’s 1-888-886-8632. Or you can go online at BeyondToday.tv or write to us at the address shown on your screen [Beyond Today, PO Box 541027, Cincinnati, OH 45254].
And, when you order your free study aid, we’ll also send you a free subscription to Beyond Today magazine. Each issue of Beyond Today includes educational and inspirational articles on practical Christian living, prophecy, doctrine and current events and how they relate to the Bible. We highly encourage you to read Beyond Today magazine. It can help you better comprehend the dynamic teachings of God’s Word.
Again, to order your study aid: The Ten Commandments and your free subscription to Beyond Today magazine call: 1-888-886-8632. The call is free. Or go online to BeyondToday.tv to read or download these informative publications.
And, if you’d like to learn much more about the fascinating truths of the Bible, please join my fellow Beyond Today hosts and me, every other Wednesday night, for our live, online Bible studies at BeyondToday.tv. In each of these studies, we discuss key biblical topics in greater detail. Of course, if you can’t join us live, you can still find all of these special Bible studies archived on our BeyondToday.tv website.
God declared in the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God...” (Exodus 20:4-5).
The Second Commandment focuses our attitude of worship. Are you living in humble admiration before the Almighty God? Or are you worshipping Him in a way that is actually offensive to Him? Is He the One who determines the priorities of your life? If not, then you will replace Him with religious idols or the idolatry of money, things and status.
Who is God seeking to worship Him? Jesus said that the time has come “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23).
Join us next week on Beyond Today as we continue to discover the gospel of the Kingdom. We also invite you to join us in praying, “Thy Kingdom come.” For Beyond Today I’m Gary Petty. Thanks for watching.
[Announcer] For the free literature offered on today’s program, go online to BeyondToday.tv. Please join us again next week on Beyond Today!