The Essence of Idolatry

When we think of idolatry we frequently think only of pagans bowing down to some statue they regard as a god. Because of this perception, many Christians think there no longer exists a problem with idolatry. After all, we don’t construct golden calves and bow to them. We’ve moved past that issue.

If we believe this, it is to our own detriment. Idolatry is much more subtle than we realize. It is more seductive and much more common, too.

A.W. Tozer once provided a wonderful explanation concerning the essence of idolatry. It is a warning we all need to heed.

The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him. It begins in the mind and may be present where no overt act of worship has taken place.

“When they knew God,” wrote Paul, “they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Then followed the worship of idols fashioned after the likeness of men and birds and beasts and creeping things. But this series of degrading acts began in the mind. Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true.

Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it. So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it. The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.

Before the Christian Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, What is God like?”

An ever-deepening problem in the modern church is the increasing infatuation with the idea of “relevancy” — especially in the west. Just visit any “Christian” bookstore and you will see this is true. The highest percentage of shelf space is dedicated to books about how to use God’s power to obtain worldly gain. God is viewed as a means to our own desired ends. And this attitude perfectly illustrates Tozer’s point.

Thid-BibleThe God of the Bible is first concerned with His own glory. The “relevant” god of  modern Christianity is first concerned with our comfort. This “relevant” god is too much like us, too much like our culture and is nothing more than a creation from the minds of men. Without realizing it, too many people have done exactly what Tozer warned against — they’ve gotten the wrong answer to the question, “What is God like?” Which makes them idolaters, worshipping a god every bit as created by men as the golden calf the Israelites made.

Perhaps digging deeply into Scripture to discover the true nature and character of God is the most “relevant” thing we can study after all.

Hail Caesar

Not long after the ascension into heaven of our Lord Jesus Christ, things in the Roman world got very dicey for His followers. A time came when Roman soldiers could demand anyone pay homage to Caesar at any time.

centurion“Pay homage to Caesar,” a soldier would demand.

The person to whom the soldier made the demand would take a pinch of incense, throw it into a tiny alter fire and declare, “Kaiser kurios,” — “Caesar is Lord.”

Understand this was not merely an affirmation of Caesar as the head of state. It was a declaration of Caesar’s divinity and an oath of allegiance to Rome. This, of course, was something Christians could not do. They had one Lord and one allegiance, so frequently their response was, “Iesous kurios,” — “Jesus is Lord.” And the immediate reward for their faithfulness to Christ was an execution.

We look at an example like that and shudder. How could a society descend into such depravity?

Gradually, my friends.

Very…

… gradually.

You see, the Roman Empire was not always like this. In fact, at its inception it was a republic — embracing many principles of democracy and liberty. Caesar was not always an emperor. He started out as just the head of an executive branch of government in Rome. The Roman senate was where the real power was. But, over time, more and more power gravitated to the executive. The Caesars began to do things they really didn’t have the authority to do. And, since no one had the courage to stop them, their accumulation of power continued.

To say the Caesars began to think more of themselves than they ought is a gross understatement. Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshipped as a god. He didn’t demand it, mind you. But he didn’t discourage it, either. There were inscriptions across the Roman Empire that declared Caesar Augustus to be “Son of God.” Caligula took it a step further and demanded to be worshipped as god. Nero claimed to be divine and Domitian took the title “lord and god.”

And many Christians living in the United States will read this historical account and regurgitate the hollow platitude we’ve heard for years — “I’m glad we live in a free country. Nothing like that could ever happen here.”

caesar1I’m sure that’s what the Romans thought, too. But, like the frog sitting in the pot on the stove, they didn’t jump out because the heat was raised ever so slightly — to boiling. Of course we have the benefit of history. We can look at their failure and make some determinations. At what point should they have rejected Roman idolatry? Was it when the power started accumulating at the throne of Caesar? Was it when Caesar allowed people to refer to him in divine terms? Was it when Caesar demanded to be worshipped? When?

Look around you. The heat is being turned up.

Power has been accumulating in the Oval Office for decades. The United States Constitution requires Congress to make laws and yet presidents have taken quite a shine to issuing imperial decrees in the form of “Executive Orders.”

Presidents have long been regarded as something more than they ought. But we’ve crossed a real line with the most recent occupant of the Oval Office. Consider…

  • Maggie Mertens, associate editor of the student newspaper Smithsonian at Massachusetts’ Smith College, wrote, “Obama is my homeboy. And I’m not saying that because he’s black — I’m saying that in reference to those Urban Outfitters t-shirts from a couple of  years ago that said, ‘Jesus is my homeboy.’ Yes, I just said it. Obama is my Jesus.”
  • The Dutch newspaper Politiken, in an article praising socialized medicine, said, “Obama is, of course, greater than Jesus.”
  • Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, during an interview on MSNBC, said, “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above – above the world, he’s sort of God.”
  • Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said when Obama talks, “the Messiah is absolutely speaking.”
  • During the 2008 presidential campaign Obama, himself, said, “A light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote [for Obama].”
  • Florida A&M professor Barbara A. Thompson wrote a book entitled, The Gospel According to Apostle Barack. In it she claimed to have been told by God to “go on a journey with Apostle Barack.” In her account of this she said, “[A]s I began to contemplate ways to assist Barack in his 2012 re-election bid, something miraculous happened. I felt God’s Spirit beckoning me in my dreams at night. Listening, cautiously, I learned that Jesus walked the earth to create a more civilized society; Martin (Luther King) walked the earth to create a more justified society, but, Apostle Barack, the name he was called in my dreams, would walk the earth to create a more equalized society for the middle class and working poor. Apostle Barack, the next young leader with a new cause, had been taken to the mountaintop and allowed to see over the other side. He had the answers to unlock the kingdom of ‘heaven here on earth’ for his followers.”
  • After Obama’s re-election, Newsweek published a cover with him in profile and the headline, “The Second Coming.”

SecondComingCoverI realize many will say all of this is mere rhetoric. It’s hyperbole. It’s harmless.

No, it’s not.

It’s blasphemy. It’s idolatry. It’s statism. It’s the kind of thing that ought to turn the stomach of any believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the longer we go without recognizing it for what it is, the more we become conditioned to regard it as harmless. Until one day we wake up and find we have a president who demands to be worshipped.

And, lest you think I am picking on the president because he is a liberal or a Democrat, allow me to point out the vast majority of my criticism for engaging in state worship has been directed squarely at the more conservative-leaning Americans (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

My whole goal here is to appeal to all Christians, regardless of ideological persuasion, to recognize and reject the temptation we all have to elevate our country to the point of idolatry. Consider the LORD’s instructions to Moses after the Israelites defeated Amalek at Rephidim.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner… — Exodus 17:14-15

Understand the significance of the name, “The LORD is My Banner.” The banner of any people was the thing around which they rallied. It was their focal point. It was their entire identity. From their banner a people draw their worth.

Dear Christian, you belong to Christ. The LORD is your banner. In Him you should find your entire identity. Rally around Him. Focus on Him.

All of the divine rhetoric being heaped upon Barack Obama should be an affront to us. But we should also thank God for it, for it serves a wonderful purpose. It makes it much easier for us to recognize the distinction between false gods and the One, True God. We have the remarkable privilege of knowing this now. There are many who won’t realize it until the actual Second Coming takes place — until the real King arrives in all His glory.

Brethren, put down your flags and take up the cross. And in so doing make your declaration clear…

empire2Iesous kurios — Jesus is Lord.

Seizing the opportunity

One of the provisions of the ridiculously misnamed “Affordable Care Act” (commonly known as “Obamacare”) forces employers to pay for the abortion services of employees. The owner of the craft store chain Hobby Lobby is a professing Christian and has a serious moral and religious aversion to abortion. Yet, the federal government of the United States is trying to force him and his company to finance it. This is exactly what I was talking about in September when I characterized this sort of situation as a “Golden Opportunity.”

ThidBugleHobby Lobby’s leaders have seized the opportunity and are standing up against a government that has overstepped its authority. They are refusing to pay for something they regard as morally reprehensible and, more importantly, openly sinful. Their actions could potently cost them more than $1 million a day in fines. And yet they stand firm. I commend them.

May the Lord be glorified in their courageous stand.

The collapse of an idol

In 1 Samuel chapter 5 we read about the results of a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines captured the ark of God — which the Israelites had carried into battle — and took it into the house of Dagon, the Philistine god. In those days if you defeated an enemy in battle it was considered an indication that your god was greater than the god of your enemy. The ark of God was to the Philistines a representation of the God of Israel and so they brought it into the house of Dagon as a way of honoring Dagon. And why shouldn’t they? I mean, after all, a victory in battle is a clear indication of divine favor — isn’t it?

Thid-FoldedFlagNow, we know that Dagon was a false god — a mere idol fashioned by the hands of men. Nevertheless, it was this false god the Philistines believed provided them with food, security, victory over their enemies, etc. And, since Dagon provided them with these things, they paid homage to Dagon — as was the common practice among many pagan nations of that day.

To varying degrees, nations honored their idols. They gave their money to them, sacrificed animals to them, called upon them in their time of need, worshipped them with ceremonies, sacred words and songs, and even sacrificed their own children to them.

But, God does not tolerate idols forever. Sooner or later they will all be brought low before Him. If you keep reading in 1 Samuel chapter 5 you will see what happened to Dagon after the Philistines placed the ark of God before him.

“And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.” — 1 Samuel 5:3-4

After that God plagued the Philistines with tumors. They finally got the hint. Israel’s God was more powerful than Dagon. They got rid of the ark in a hurry.

Now, before we start talking trash about the speck in the eyes of the Philistines, we’d better take a look in the mirror to see if you have a plank in our own. Is there anything out there we regard in the same fashion as the Philistines regarded Dagon?

Do we…

  • Pay homage to an emblem made by the hands of men?
  • Give our money to something?
  • Call upon someone in our time of need?
  • Worship some entity with ceremonies? Pledges? Songs?
  • Do we sacrifice our children for the sake of something?

If you live in the United States of America as I do then you don’t have to look very hard to discover the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.”

In fact, the republic for which our flag stands is constantly changing. Please consider…

I remain convinced that the vilest idol in America is America. But please note, the characteristics of the United States that may have prompted many of us to regard it as an idol are quickly vanishing.

Thid-TatteredFlagCould it be that God is allowing Christians to witness, first hand, the fall of such a prominent idol so that we might return to Him as uncompromising subjects of the King of kings? Might this be a call to Christians to reject loyalty to any earthly empire in exchange for the desire to serve only Him and His Kingdom?

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