The Truth about Idolatry

Idol ElephantThe words “idol” and “idolatry” evoke different thoughts for different people. Many in the west hear these words and picture primitive worshipers bowing down to man-made statues. The Bible certainly describes this kind of idolatry. Just think of Aaron and the golden calf in the Old Testament or Paul visiting Athens in the New Testament. These stories describe clear violations of the first and second commandments.

However, the Bible also describes a kind of idolatry that takes place in the heart (Ezekiel 14:4). This manifestation of idolatry includes idols of the mind in addition to idols of the hand. These are the idols John Calvin warned about when he wrote, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” These idols of the mind include:

  • The worship of creation (Romans 1)
  • The worship of spirits (Colossians 2)
  • The worship of money (Matthew 6)
  • The worship of possessions (Colossians 3)
  • The worship of knowledge (Acts 17)
  • The worship of self (Luke 9)

(Tim Keller has written a helpful book about modern idols, Counterfeit Gods).

When understood rightly, there is no denying the fact that idolatry is a problem even for modern, sophisticated westerners who have never bowed down to a man-made statue. Part of the challenge in the 21st century is the fact that millions of people don’t even recognize their idolatry as idolatry, and those who do often fail to see the seriousness of this sin.

Not surprisingly, the Bible offers wisdom about how we ought to think about idolatry – in all its manifestations. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah lived thousands of years ago in a pre-modern culture on the other side of the world. However, Jeremiah’s day was actually very similar to ours. Like us, Jeremiah lived in a day when idolatry was rampant and most people didn’t recognize the heinousness of their sin. As a prophet of the LORD, Jeremiah spoke out against the idolatry of his day in an attempt to help his countrymen see the ugliness and the seriousness of breaking the first two commandments. Consider the following truths from the first chapters of Jeremiah:

  • Idols are worthless, and those who worship them become worthless and end up far from God (Jeremiah 2:5).
  • Idols are not gods, and those who worship them have exchanged God’s glory for something that does not profit (Jeremiah 2:11).
  • Idols are like broken vessels that cannot hold water, and those who worship them have left the fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:13).
  • Idols enslave those who worship them even though the worshiper thinks they are “free” (Jeremiah 2:19).
  • Idols are a stain on those who worship them, and no human effort can remove this stain (Jeremiah 2:22).
  • Idols are not able to deliver those who worship them when trouble arises (Jeremiah 2:26-27).
  • Idols require those who worship them to “forget” the truth about God (Jeremiah 2:32).
  • Idols are a violation of God’s relationship with his people, and those who worship them are guilty of spiritual adultery (Jeremiah 3:1).
  • Idols make those who worship them stubborn and brazen in sin so that they are not ashamed of their idolatry (Jeremiah 3:3).

Since the Fall, human beings have been bent toward idolatry. We chase idols of the hand and idols of the mind. Even those of us who’d like to think we’re too sophisticated to worship statues must recognize the idolatry that exists in our hearts. We must recognize the heinousness, the ugliness, and the seriousness of our idolatry. Only when we see our sin as God sees our sin will we find ourselves in a position to repent and believe the good news that Jesus died to save idolaters … like us.