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“What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.” – Origen
We Christians have a proneness to want to “index” our sin.
To index our sin is to regard certain sins we commit against God, if we call them sins at all, as being worse than others. It’s tantamount to grading our sins on a hamartiological curve; the rationale being that certain sins and trespasses are inherently more (or less) significant to God depending on the nature and degree of the offense.
Consequently, we view murder as more deplorable than lying. We treat stealing as more nefarious than not honoring our father and mother. We even go so far as changing the names of the offenses we commit in an effort to acquit ourselves of the guilt associated with them. For example, we refer to the sin of adultery as “having an affair” and to fornication as “sleeping with” someone.
There is any number of other examples, of course, but I’m confident you get the point.
But regardless what label(s) we choose to use to describe our innumerable failures to meet God’s standard of righteousness (Rom. 3:23), there is one sin that barely registers on our behavioral radar when it comes to this matter.
I am speaking of the sin of idolatry.
“This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. 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 the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.'” – Acts 7:39-40
God’s Word has much to say about idolatry, and yet it is treated as barely more than an afterthought in the daily lives of most Christians today, not to mention in the pulpits of our churches on any given Sunday morning.
Think about it.
When was the last time you heard a sermon preached or a Sunday School lesson taught on idolatry?
So, what is idolatry anyway?
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 one true God in terms of the devotion, worship, and adoration that is due only to Him. Most Christians would concur with that definition of idolatry. The problem, however, is that we Christians generally understand such misplaced adoration solely in terms of venerating statues and other physical images that represent other religions or deities.
Rarely do we view idolatry as a sin we often commit against God in ways that are less obvious and blasphemous.
“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.” – Ps. 96:4-5
The word idolatry first appears in Scripture in 1 Sam. 15:23a, which is the only occurrence of that Hebrew word in the Old Testament. Conversely, in the New Testament, the Greek noun appears only three times (1 Cor. 10:14; Gal. 5:20; Col. 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, spiritually and otherwise (Col. 3:5). But contrary to popular thinking, idolatry is not limited to prostrating oneself or offering prayers before a physical image constructed of wood, stone, or metal. The truth is we need not mimic the Israelites in worship in constructing an actual golden calf in order to be guilty of such an egregious offense against a holy God (Ex. 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
As a heart attitude, the development of idolatry is normally not a sudden event. More often than not, it is a destination at which we arrive gradually over time. With this in mind, the question becomes: how do we guard our heart against idolatry and what are some warning signs we should look for that we are headed in such an iniquitous and damnable direction?
I believe the above-referenced text in Acts 7:39-40 gives us three “signposts” on the road to an idolatrous heart.
Signpost #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 (Mk. 7:20-23).
The idolatry of which the Israelites were guilty began with a volitional decision to reorient their affections away from the one true God toward a false god. Their rejection of Moses and, by association, the God of Moses, was first an attitudinal issue in that they turned back to Egypt in their hearts (v. 39b).
See how this works?
Prior to idolatry being consummated by an act, the act is precipitated by an attitude.
In other words, before one can fully worship a false god, whomever or whatever that false god might be, one must first determine in their heart to volitionally reorient their affections away from the one true God (Jn. 17:3). Only then does the actual act of idolatry take place.
Idolatry always begins with an attitude.
No one forced the Israelites to become idolaters. They did so willingly out of the lusts of their own hearts (v. 39a).
Signpost #2: The Act of Idolatry: Acts 7:40a
This is the fun part for sinners like you and me.
It’s “fun” because this is the signpost where we actually get to act out our worship of the false gods we create and experience the satisfaction of doing so.
To consummate their rebellion against God, the Israelites asked Aaron, Moses’ brother, to “Make for us a god who will go before us.” (Ex. 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 and deceitfulness 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 us that makes it or them an idol to us (Lk. 14:26-27).
This is why it is entirely possible for children to become a false god to parents, or someday being married to become a false god to a person who is single, or a higher paying job to become a false god to the one who aspires to enhance his or her standard of living (1 Jn. 2:15-17).
“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 (Ps. 127:3), the desire to be married (Pr. 18:22, 31:10), or the desire for a better education (Pr. 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 our heart against ungodly worship, otherwise, we will find our affections turned toward false gods as opposed to the true God who alone can bring those desires to fruition in accordance with His sovereign will for our life (1 Jn. 3:19-22).
Signpost #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 Pet. 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 for their base disobedience. 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; it’s the fine print we use to explain why we worship the false gods we do.
We never think of our children as idols because our idolatry is masked by the fact that we “love them” and that God “blessed me” with them. Conversely, we don’t give a second thought to spending countless hours at work because “it puts food on the table.” Likewise, we increasingly ignore the anxiety we feel at logging off of our social media accounts because it’s a convenient way to “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 blinded to our idolatry.
This is why idolatry is the one sin we do not feel we are guilty of, for unless there is a physical “golden calf” sitting in the middle of our office or family room, we’re convinced we must be doing alright in that area.
It is first an attitude then an act (as is the case with any sin).
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away from 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.” – Eze. 14:6-8 (NASB)
If you were to search your own heart right now, what would it reveal to you about yourself in this area of your walk with Christ?
Could it be possible there is someone or something you are guilty of treating as a false god; an object or individual toward whom the affections of your heart have been reoriented and redirected in a sinful manner at God’s expense (Ex. 34:14)?
God has commanded that you and I have no other gods before Him (Ex. 20:3-4).
Now, I may be wrong about this, but something tells me that when God uttered those words, He actually meant what He said.
“Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” – 1 Jn. 5:21 (NASB)
Humbly in Christ,
The Church and Idolatry – Ligonier Ministries
Idolatry in Corporate Worship – Desiring God
Idolatry is still alive today – Christianity Today
I wish my mom’s phone was never invented, 2nd grader writes in school project – BBC
6 questions to help reveal if you’re addicted to social media – Washington Post