Insidious Idolatry

by Alan B. Christensen

John 8:25; Hebrews 10:5-7

WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, one of ancient Israel's sins that aroused the great anger of God was that of idolatry. We read in Jeremiah 11:17, "The Lord Almighty, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done evil and provoked me to anger by burning incense to Baal."

What is idolatry? In the first instance, of course, it means the worship of idols. This kind of idolatry is something we all know about. Nothing new here.

We are also quite familiar with the second kind of idolatry. It has to do with making a god out of things in our life. I'm using the word "things" to mean anything that takes hold of our attention and our affections; anything that uses up our energy and buys up our time.

Worldliness. The Bible speaks about these things. Foremost among them is worldly riches. "I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner" (Ecc. 5:13); and "it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:23).

But these things also include our own wisdom, our own flesh. "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom" (Jer. 9:23); and "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:5).

Also included in this type of idolatry is anything that takes from us the love that rightfully belongs to God. It could even be family! Listen to Luke 14:26: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sistersyes, even his own lifehe cannot be my disciple."

As I said, we are well familiar with these kinds of idolatry. So, I'm not going to belabor them. Rather, I want to speak to you about yet another kind of idolatry, an idolatry that many churchgoers today are unknowingly engaging in.

Self-styled Faith

This kind of idolatry is insidious because it wears a mask, a mask that says, "I believe in God."

Now, of course, belief in God is good. But this kind of idolatry views God as less than what He really is. Such an idolator worships not the God of the Bible, but a god created by his own desire or imagination. He doesn't believe in God as He is, but as He is wanted to be.

I often hear people say something like this: "My God is loving and forgiving. I'm sure that on Judgment Day, He won't punish those people who have lived a decent life, but never had a chance to hear the gospel." That, of course, is not what the Bible says. They are talking about a god that is boxed in by the limited thinking of humans.

The fact is, what we believe about God determines how we live our life, whom we are living it for, and where we go for help when we need help. It determines whether we are worshipping the living God of the Bible or are just idolizing something we have made up in our mind.

Listen and learn. Martin Luther was once asked to sign his name in the fly-leaf of a Bible. As he did that, he also cited John 8:25 ("Who are you?" Jesus was asked. "Just what I have been claiming all along," Jesus replied). And Luther commented, "They desire to know who He is and not to regard what He says, while He desires them first to listen, then they will know who He is."

In short, let the Word of God provide us with the knowledge of God.

True, we can never fully understand who God is or what He is like. God Himself asks in Isaiah 46:5, "To whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?" And He says in Isaiah 55:9, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

But the discerning mind and the reverent heart can discover certain qualities of Him that He has deigned to make known to us in His Word. If we do not listen, we will never be able to know anything, for it is decreed that God will not be seen or known or be comprehended except through the Scripture.

Intellectual Belief

Also engaging in this deceptive kind of idolatry are those who have intellectually accepted Christ, but have never had a personal relationship with Him. They are trusting in their own decision to "receive" Christ rather than in the person and the work of Christ Himself.

Here again, what the Scripture says is what really matters. We read in Hebrews 10:5-7:

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, 'Here I amit is written about me in the scrollI have come to do your will, O God.'"
From this passage we learn first that Christ came into the world. Christ, the Eternal God Himself, was born into the world. He came into and joined the parade of humankind from heaven.

Dialogue in heaven. Secondly, just prior to His coming, there was a dialogue that took place between Jesus and the Father. Noting that God had no pleasure in animal sacrifices, Jesus said to the Father, "a body you have prepared for me."

One ponders the thousands of animals that were sacrificed on Jewish altars. It seems to be so repulsive and gruesome. No wonder God had no pleasure in them. Those were merely rites that served to postpone the judgment of God until Christ was given a human body to come into the world.

And why did He come? Christ said to the Father, "I have come to do your will, O God." He came to live a life of perfect obedience to the Father, and He came to be the Perfect Sacrifice, the Lamb of God that would be slain.

If your thinking and desires have not become more and
more like Christ's, then you are probably engaging in idolatry.  

Indwelt by Christ. But the body in which Christ was crucified and buried was not the only body God
had prepared for Christ. As long as time lasts and until eternity future begins, the Lord has been embodying Himself in those whom the Father has given Him.

One of the best definitions of a Christian, in my opinion, is Colossians 1:27, where it speaks of "Christ in you". Paul also talks about it in Ephesians 3:17, when he prays "that Christ may dwell in your hearts." As true children of God, we are extensions of that early incarnation with no less meaning.

Of course, bodily, Jesus is in glory now; He is at the right hand of the Father. What He has done is "othered" Himself through His vicar, His Holy Spirit, whom He has sent. All that Jesus is, the Holy Spirit is. "For he was sent to glorify me", Jesus said.

He cares. What is the significance of our being indwelt by the Spirit of Christ? For one thing, it means that we are among the very blessed ones whom God really cares for.

The people who truly care for you reach for you. They reach you with a call, they reach you with a note, a handshake, or a hug. The closer they can get to you and the longer they can be with you, the better.

Well, Jesus wouldn't have bothered to do what He didto come to this world and die on the cross for us and then to incarnate Himself in usif He didn't care for us. So there is not a single one of us, if you are a believer, who can say, "God doesn't seem to care about me."

He guides. Secondly, the Spirit of Christ is living in us to change us. He's not dormant nor passive. He acts in us and guides us. "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13).

If He's really there, you and I should be able to say something about ourselves that couldn't otherwise be possible. By the incarnation, you can know that you are truly a child of God because there is something different about you. And that difference will grow and grow and grow with the passing of time until the ultimate difference takes place, when we shall be like Him and see Him as He is.

The fact that all true believers have a personal relationship with Christ, that they are continually being made to conform to the image of Christ cannot be over-emphasized. Paul says in Romans 8:9, "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ."


Are you being controlled personally by the Spirit of Christ? Are you so led by the Spirit that you have an increasing desire to be obedient to the whole Word of God? If so, you can know that you are right with God because all your sins have been covered by the blood of Christ. You can know that you are never alone and that you are cared for. And whenever you need help and comfort in times of trials, you know that He is always available.

On the other hand, if you have not really experienced Christ in your heart, if your thinking and desires have not become more and more like Christ's, then you are probably engaging in idolatry without realizing it. You have just been trusting your intellectual reception of Christ instead of hanging your whole life on Him.

Humble yourselves before God, then. Learn more about Him from His Word. Turn away from your self-centered way of living, and sincerely pray to God from your heart, thanking Christ for dying for your sins and beseeching Him to be your personal Savior and Lord. May God hear your prayer and make you a child of His. o

Rev. Alan B. Christensen is senior pastor of Hope Church, 240 Wolfpit Road, Wilton, CT 06897.

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