“Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.’
– Acts 7:39-40 (NASB)
We Christians have a proneness to want to “index” our sin.
To index sin is to consider some sins, if we call them sins at all, as being worse than others. The rationale being that the consequences are inherently more (or less) severe depending on the nature of the offense.
So we view murder as more deplorable than lying. We treat stealing as more nefarious than not honoring our father and mother. We even change the names of our sins in an effort to acquit ourselves of the guilt associated with them. Marital infidelity is now referred to as “having an affair”, while pre-marital sex is referred to as “sleeping with” someone.
There are any number of other examples, but you get the point.
Regardless what labels we use to describe our failure to meet God’s standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23), there is one sin that barely registers on our spiritual radar when addressing this particular subject.
It is the sin of idolatry.
The Bible has much to say about idolatry. And yet it seems an afterthought in the daily lives of Christians today, not to mention in the pulpits of our churches on any given Sunday. Think about it. When was the last time you heard a sermon or Sunday School lesson on idolatry?
That’s what I thought.
“What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.” – Origen
So, what exactly is idolatry?
By definition, idolatry is the worship of a false god.
But this begs the question: what is a false god?
Simply put, a false god is any person or thing that redirects our affections away from the true God who alone is worthy of our devotion. Most Christians would agree this is as an accurate description of what idolatry is. The problem, however, is that we generally understand such misplaced adoration only in terms of venerating statues and images that represent other deities.
Rarely do we view idolatry as an offense we often commit in ways that are less egregious.
“For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” – Psalm 96:4-5
The word idolatry first appears in Scripture in 1 Samuel 15:23a, which is the only occurrence of the word (tĕraphiym תְּרָפִים) in the Old Testament. It appears but three times (eidōlolatria εἰδωλολατρία) in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10:14; Galatians 5:20; Colossians 3:5).
In many ways, idolatry is like a gateway drug.
It is the one sin that leads to other sins that are even more destructive (Colossians 3:5).
Contrary to popular thinking, idolatry is not limited to prostrating oneself before an image constructed of wood, stone, or metal. We need not worship an actual golden calf in order to be guilty of such a God-dishonoring offense (Exodus 32:1-4).
“Do you covet the esteem and crave the approval of those around you? Do you go to great lengths to avoid looking foolish or being rejected for your Christian faith? Do you consider present and material results more important than eternal reward? Have you departed from God and adopted idols instead? Are you at war with God?” – C.J. Mahaney, Worldliness, p. 28
Idolatry is not usually a sudden event.
More often than not, it is a destination we arrive at over time.
With this in mind, how do we guard against idolatry and what are the warning signs we should look for? I believe the above text in Acts 7:39-40 gives us three phases on the road to an idolatrous heart.
Phase 1: The Attitude of Idolatry (Acts 7:39a,b)
Every act of disobedience is the fruit of an attitude of disobedience.
This is true of the spiritually regenerate and unregenerate alike.
Attitudes, for better or worse, originate in the heart (Mark 7:20-23). The idolatry of which the Israelites were guilty began with a volitional decision to alter their affections. Their rejection of Moses – and likewise the God of Moses – was first an attitude issue in that in their hearts they turned back to Egypt (v. 39b).
See how this works?
Prior to idolatry being consummated with an act, the act is precipitated by a change in attitude.
Before we can fully worship our false god, whomever or whatever it might be, we must first determine in our heart to reorient our affections away from the true God. Only then does the actual act of idolatry take place. No one forced the Israelites to become idolators. They did so willingly (v. 39a).
Idolatry always begins with an attitude.
Phase 2: The Act of Idolatry: (Acts 7:40a)
This is the fun part.
This is where we get to act out our worship of the false gods we create.
To consummate their rebellion against God the Israelites asked Aaron, Moses’ brother, to “Make for us a god who will go before us.” (Exodus 32:1-4; Acts 7:40a)
The mere thought seems rather absurd, does it not?
“Make us a god…”
But such is the depravity of the human heart and its susceptibility to the allure of sin.
“Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” – Hebrews 3:12-13 (NASB)
You see, what makes a thing or person a “god” is not who or what the person or thing is, but the value or worth we ascribe to that person or thing.
In other words, it’s what the person or thing means to you (Luke 14:26-27).
This is why it is entirely possible for a child to become a false god to a parent, for the dream of being married to become a false god to a single person, and for a college degree to become a false god to the one who aspires to enhance their economic station in life.
“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” – Proverbs 4:23 (NASB)
Please do not misunderstand.
I am not suggesting that the desire for children (Psalm 127:3), the desire to be married (Proverbs 18:22, 31:10), or the desire for a better education (Proverbs 4:13, 16:16) are evil or sinful pursuits in and of themselves.
I am not saying that at all.
I am merely saying that we must guard against ungodly worship, otherwise, we will find our affections turned toward false gods as opposed to the true God who alone makes those desires possible.
Phase 3: The Apologetic of Idolatry (Acts 7:40b)
The term apologetic comes from the Greek word apologia, which means to give a defense for one’s opinions, positions, or actions.
In theological terms, the word apologetic is most often associated with 1 Peter 3:15, “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”
However, with regard to the idolatry of the Israelites and its associated attitudes and actions, their apologetic was nothing more than an excuse. Their rationale for asking Aaron to make a god for them is found in their own words (Acts 7:40a), “for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.”
Idolatry is always accompanied by an excuse, an alibi, an asterisk; fine print to explain why we worship the false gods we create for ourselves.
We never think of our children as idols because our idolatry is masked by the fact that we “love them.” We don’t give a second thought to spending countless hours at work because “it puts food on the table.” We don’t consider the anxiety we feel at logging off of Facebook as idolatry since “it helps me stay connected to my family and friends.”
See where I’m going with this?
It is the excuses we make for our idolatry that keep us blind to our idolatry.
This is why idolatry is the one sin we do not feel we are guilty of. We believe that unless there is a physical “golden calf” sitting in the middle of our office or family room, we must be doing alright in that area.
But, remember, idolatry is a matter of the heart.
It is first an attitude then an action.
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away fro all your abominations. For anyone of the house of Israel or of the immigrants who stay in Israel who separates himself from Me, sets up his idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet to inquire of Me for himself, I the Lord will be brought to answer him in My own person. I will set My face against that man and make him a sign and a proverb, and I will cut him off from among My people. So you will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 14:6-8 (NASB)
If you were to search your own heart right now, what would it reveal about you? Is it possible there is someone or something you are guilty of treating as a false god, to whom your affections have been directed in a sinful manner at God’s expense?
God has commanded that we have no other gods before Him (Exodus 20:3-4).
I may be wrong, but I suspect that God might have actually meant what He said.
“Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” – 1 John 5:21 (NASB)
Humbly in Christ,