Some of us
would never consider our need for a spiritual awakening, for gospel renewal,
for an experience of revival. But often, as we’re going along in our merry,
mundane way, the Lord mercifully shocks us out of our lukewarm existence:
“Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
awakens His people to the unseen threats to our spiritual health and progress,
He shines a spotlight on all of our idols . . . and commands us to make a choice.
When I was a
student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Professor Doug Stuart showed us
that idolatry wasn’t a problem only for “those people way back when.” It
remains a serious issue for us now—even for Christians who claim Christ as
their King. It’s safe to say that if we had lived back then, we would have been
just as guilty of idolatry as any pagan.
explained that ancient idolatry had some natural advantages in its appeal to
the sinful human heart. Here are some examples.
First, idolatry was guaranteed. Once you carved an idol, the god was assured
to possess it. No need to pray to an invisible deity! Now you have one at your
fingertips. Just perform your religious duties, and the idol will take care of
Second, idolatry was selfish. If you took care of the god’s needs—by
means of offerings and so on—it would take care of you. At least that was the
theory. The gods could be bribed—it was sort of a pagan prosperity gospel.
Third, idolatry was easy. You didn’t have to delve into
theology or change your lifestyle. There was no requirement to live a moral
life; just keep those sacrifices coming.
Fourth, idolatry was convenient. No need to go on a long pilgrimage
or show up at a temple. Just use your idol, at home or on the road. There was a
god for every occasion—the weather, travel, business transactions, or crops.
Choose your god and get on with your life!
Fifth, idolatry was normal. As my friend and fellow pastor Kevin
DeYoung has said, “Everyone did it. It’s how women got pregnant, how crops
grew, how armies conquered. Idolatry was like oil: nothing ran in the ancient
world without it.”
Sixth, idolatry was logical. You didn’t have to appease one god,
or conform your life to its narrow dictates. You could choose any god (or gods)
you wanted to meet your needs or desires—and if they changed, no problem!
Idolatry was the world’s first do-it-yourself religion. If one idol stops
working, just move on to another.
Seventh, idolatry was pleasing to the
senses. It promised
to bring a transcendent presence that you could see and touch. You didn’t have
to wonder what your god was like—you could handle him—or her—any time you
Eighth, idolatry was indulgent. Much of the time, you could get away
with giving very little to the
god. You could offer the idol your leftover food and drink and feel good about
it. No need, as in biblical religion, to give your first and best!
Ninth, idolatry was sensual. Because the pagan world saw a
connection between fertility on earth and fertility in the heavens, idolatry
often was drenched in eroticism. When the gods procreated, you would have a
bountiful harvest. Rituals on earth for the gods frequently had a sexual dimension,
coaxing them to do the same and bless the harvest.
So it’s easy
to see why the ancient world was so susceptible to idolatry—and why the people of
the true God often succumbed to it. Idolatry made religion easy, this-worldly,
a means to financial prosperity and self-actualization, and a religiously
sanctioned way to indulge in sexual relations of all kinds without fear of
commitment. You could do what you wanted as long as you kept your god fed.
object of worship therefore was not the god or gods. It was the self—a problem that remains with us
today. Idolatry is an expression of our natural alienation from God—a worship
of self, where I am the ruler of life. Ultimately, as with all of Satan’s lies,
idolatry promises much but delivers little. As the Apostle Paul stated, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
result of these things—then and now—is death.
The real question
is not “Why could people in the ancient world fall for such things?” Rather,
it’s “Why do we assume that we are immune to it?” Idolatry is the default
setting of every human heart, liable to take control of our souls when we least
yourself, even if you claim to be a Christian, if God really is the center of
your life, or simply a means to an end. If it’s the latter, then you just might
be an idolater. And that’s a dangerous place to be.
As Paul also
said, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
didn’t stop there, because there is hope, even for idolaters. “And such were some of you,” the apostle assures us. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
words: “And such were some of you.” The power to escape idolatry, either
ancient or modern, and worship the one true King comes from God, not from
ourselves. So let us go to Him today—to the God who forgives, to the God who
cleanses, to the Father who awakens and revives.
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