No Graven Images
June 7, 1992
“Idols? You must be kidding.”
“That’s what they have in Africa, right?”
“Me? An idol-worshiper? What do you take me for? A pagan?”
“The only thing I worship is my brand-new car.”
What is an idol anyway? The dictionary offers this definition: “an image used as an object of worship.” That sounds like those pictures we’ve seen in National Geographic of squatting Buddhas surrounded by candles. On that ground most modern Americans can claim innocence. We’re far beyond that … aren’t we? We don’t use
images when we worship. At least most of us don’t.
But that’s not the only definition. The second part reads “one that is adored.” Hmmmm. That raises many questions. If adoration is the issue, then perhaps idolatry is closer than we think. Pushing onward, we discover that “adore” has three different meanings:
1. To worship with divine honors.
2. To love deeply.
3. To like very much.
Obviously there is a huge difference between # 1 and # 3. We all understand that liking something is not the same as worshiping something. It’s # 2 that gives us problems. At what point does “loving deeply” cross the line into idolatrous worship?
—Is it possible to love another person too much?
—Is it possible to love your house or your car too much?
—Is it possible to love success too much?
—Is it possible to love the praise of others too much?
—Is it possible to love sexual fulfillment too much?
If the proper answer is yes to all those questions, then idolatry can pop up anywhere in life, even in places we usually don’t associate with religion. That leads me to say that anyone reading these words might be an idolator—and if you are, you almost certainly don’t recognize it.
I. The Second Commandment
Let’s begin by getting this Commandment in clear focus: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Notice how long this Commandment is. Evidently there is great danger here. We want to do what this Com-mandment forbids. We want to do anything but face God on the issue of personal allegiance. Even a brief reading leads to the following conclusions:
—The danger must be great.
—Idolatry must be a recurring temptation.
—The spiritual results must be catastrophic.
—God’s hatred of it must be fierce.
—Our response must be complete obedience.
What’s the difference between the First and the Second Commandments? We might state the difference this way. The 1st Commandment tells us who we worship; the Second Commandment tells us how we worship. In one we are told that our focus must be on God alone; in the other we are told that we must not use accept any spiritual substitutes.
As we begin thinking about the Second Commandment, perhaps it will be helpful to know that of the 10 Commandments, this is the one most often repeated in the Bible. It is repeated in various ways over and over and over again in the Old Testament because idolatry was a continuing problem for the people of God. That one point should tip us off to pay special attention because (as we shall see) the threat of idolatry is still with us today.
Our problem is entirely in the other direction: We think this Commandment is the most irrelevant of the 10. We have such a narrow, cramped view of idolatry that if we’re not actually bowing down to a statue somewhere, we think this doesn’t really apply to us. How wrong we are!
A. What This Commandment Prohibits
Let’s begin at the beginning. This Commandment clearly forbids the worship of man-made religious images. Notice how comprehensive this is. It covers the heavens, the earth and the sea. This is a total prohibition that allows no exceptions whatsoever. That includes statues, pictures, stained glass, printed images, painted images, hand-woven images, images of animals, birds, reptiles, or even images of biblical characters. We are not to worship to such images or through such images.
Thus with one sweeping statement God rules out pagan worship involving statues, pictures, beads, trinkets and holy objects. Why is this so wrong? Because religious images promote the worship of false gods. Because religious images breed superstition. Because religious images focus attention on the creation instead of the Creator.
Sometimes people argue that using religious images is simply an “aid” to worship because it focuses the mind. Suppose someone said, “I’ve put a picture of a spider on the wall to remind me of you.” You’d be insulted. But that’s how God feels when we use images of him. No image can do him justice. Even the greatest artist can’t begin to comprehend the glory of the Almighty. For someone to say that a statue helps her keep Jesus in mind is like a woman saying she goes out with other men to keep her husband in mind.
What We Saw in Paraguay
This was driven home to me 17 years ago when we spent a summer working with Baptist missionaries in Paraguay. Like most of the countries in South America, Paraguay is almost totally Catholic. In every little community we entered, the largest building in town was always the Catholic church. I learned a lot about Catholicism simply by observing the worship of the people. Here in America the Roman Catholic Church has been deeply affected by its interaction with the culture at large. Things are stated here in a carefully-nuanced fashion. But in Paraguay we found that the Catholics could be much bolder. I remember visiting a large Catholic church with several outdoor shrines to Mary. Above the statue of Mary were these words: “Mary, the Salvation of your soul.”
Few, if any, American Catholics would say (or even believe) such a thing. But in Paraguay it did not seem out of place. Unfortunately, it is a terrible perversion of biblical truth. Mary was a heroic biblical figure—worthy of deep admiration—but she is not the Savior nor can she aid in your salvation in any way. Those who trust in her for salvation are sadly deceived for they are unwittingly worshiping an idol.
“Pastor, aren’t you being a little harsh?” I don’t think so. John 4:24 says, “God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” God wants our immediate worship. He doesn’t want us to come through any intermediaries—whether priests or prelates or bishops or popes or even the “mother of God.” We don’t need statues or pictures or beads or incense or any other manmade devices to bring us into God’s presence. Does that mean that statues and pictures and stained glass windows are wrong in and of themselves? No, but this commandment is offering us a very serious warning. There is a very fine line between using a picture as an aid to the senses and subtly thinking that the picture somehow helps you get through to God. We must not cross that fine line. When we do, we have committed idolatry whether we know it or not.
B. What This Commandment Threatens
This is the only commandment with both a threat and a promise. The threat is clear: God promises to punish the children of idolators down to the third and fourth generations. That is to say, if you worship an idol, your great-grandchildren will pay the price for it long after you are dead and gone.
Does God really mean this? Will he really punish my great-grandchildren for the things I do? Absolutely. In fact, this principle is the foundation of modern psychology. When you go to visit a counselor, one of the first questions will be, “What about your family?” You’ll end up talking about your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, the atmosphere you were raised in, the moral values you were taught, your significant childhood experiences. Why? Because you are a product of your past. You are the sum total of all the experiences of your life as they are filtered through your consciousness. To understand your past is to know your present.
To a large degree you are what you are because of your parents and your grandparents. That holds true in the spiritual arena as much as in any other part of life. The Second Commandment teaches us that there is a kind of spiritual DNA that is passed along from father to son and from mother to daughter. Like it or not, you become like your parents over the years—their mannerisms become your mannerisms, their prejudices become your prejudices and their spiritual priorities soon become your spiritual priorities. You can’t escape that fact.
God is saying, “If I don’t have my rightful place in people’s lives, if other things take my place, the ramifications and repercussions will be passed from one generation to another. Four generations equals 100 years. Think about that. Break this commandment and your great-grandchildren will suffer for it a century from now. You’ll be dead but your descendants will still be paying the price.
C. What This Commandment Promises
Here’s the other side of that truth. For those who keep this commandment, God promises to show his loyal love to a thousand generations. That means that if I will take this commandment seriously, I can insure that God’s special love will be poured out on my descendants hundreds of years after I am gone.
Is this literally true? We have trouble believing it because of the large number of generations. It sounds like hyperbole. But God never plays games with his children. If he says a thousand generations, that’s exactly what He means. The wonderful truth is this: The promise is greater than the threat. The reward is far more than the punishment.
If I Had Five Minutes to Live
While I was thinking about that, a strange thought came to my mind. If I were dying and had just three minutes to pass along my highest values to my three sons, what would I say? After a few seconds, five things came to my mind:
1. Take care of your mother.
2. Love each other.
3. Keep yourself pure.
4. Marry a Christian girl.
5. Serve Jesus Christ forever.
That summarizes all I really care about. If my boys will do that, I’ll die feeling like my life has been well spent. The wonderful thing is this: God has promised to pass along my values to the next generation. If my values are weak, that promise becomes punishment; but if my values reflect God’s values, then that promise becomes my best hope for the future.
—Your God will become your children’s God.
—Your values will become their values.
—If we break this Commandment, our children will break it too.
—But if we trust God alone and make him # 1, our kids will likely catch our faith!
D. What This Commandment Demands
Notice God’s description of himself: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” The word is very strong, having the idea of burning, passionate love. In fact, it is used of the love of a husband for his wife. Some of you may be put off by the idea of a jealous God, but jealousy in the right context is a very healthy emotion. I have every right to be jealous of my wife’s affection and she has every right to be jealous for my undivided attention. Jealousy in marriage can be a very positive emotion because it means, “I am fully commit-ted to you and I expect you to be fully committed to me.” In that sense we might say that if you are not jealous for your husband/wife, you’re probably not fully committed.
True love is jealous. If the love is right, then the jealousy is right. So what is it that God is jealous for? Our undivided attention, our exclusive focus on him. Seen in that light, idolatry is a terrible sin because in reality it is a form of spiritual prostitution.
The Intolerant God!
There is a great danger of easy tolerance in the spiritual realm. It has become a great virtue to be easygoing, to go along to get along, to say, “Each man has a right to his own views” and “Religion is a private affair.” That view leads to indifference, agnosticism and eventually to paganism.
When it comes to matters of ultimate values, the tolerant man is essentially stupid!
—Why does modern man use “God” as little as possible?
—Why does he say “Religion” when he clearly means “God?”
—Why do Christians say “Lord” and “the Good Lord” instead of “the Lord Jesus Christ?”
Is it not because we ourselves wish not to offend anyone?
Let us be clear on this point. If your religion never offends anyone, you’ve got a different religion than the religion of the Bible!
II. Specific Applications
Let’s move from the text to consider how it impacts life on a daily basis. Three statements come quickly to mind:
A. I Must Give God the Right to be God in My Life Whether I Like It or Not.
This is the question of ultimate authority. Does God have the right to be God in your life? You say, “Of course he does.” Yes, but have you told him so? Or do you feel the need to fight with God about his plans for you?
This week I’ve been reading Franklin Graham’s biography of Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision. In the foreword, Richard Halverson recounts a prayer he often heard Bob Pierce pray: “Lord, I give you the right to change my agenda at any time you like without informing me in advance.” What a great way to approach life. “Lord, you’re in charge. I’ve got my plans, my dreams, my personal agenda, but if you want to change things, go right ahead … and you don’t have to tell me in advance.”
That’s what I mean by giving God the right to be God. We must not say, “Lord, you can do this but only if I agree to it in advance.” In the first place, God won’t agree to that stipulation; in the second place, if he did agree to inform us in advance, he wouldn’t be God anymore.
—He has the right to direct your life any way he sees fit.
—He has the right to answer your prayers as he sees fit.
—He has the right to bless you as he sees fit.
—He has the right to include sickness as part of his plan for you.
—He has the right to change your plans in mid-stream.
—He has the right to answer some prayers but not others.
—He has the right to lead you through deep waters.
—He has the right to allow sorrow to come your way.
He’s God! He can do whatever he wants in your life. Have you ever acknowledged that fact?
B. I Must Not Judge God by His Ability to Fulfill All My Desires.
This one is tricky because God does indeed have the ability to fulfill all my desires. Yet it is rarely his will to do that. More often than not, some of my deepest desires will never be fulfilled.
—I may want fame but God may choose not to give it to me.
—I may want a happy marriage but God may allow divorce.
—I may want healthy children but God may allow muscular dystrophy.
—I may want financial security but God may allow poverty.
—I may want many friends but God may not give them to me.
—I may have my heart set on a certain career but the door may not open to me.
—I may think that I should write a book but the publishers may not agree with me.
—I may hope for a long life but God may take me home before I’m 40.
Who knows what God will do? I have my dreams, but God has his will. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:33) Which being interpreted means,”Life is like a roll of the dice but God is in charge of how the numbers come up.”
Let me turn this truth around so we can see it from the other side. “God doesn’t owe you anything.”
—Not career advancement
—Not long life
—Not a wonderful marriage
He doesn’t owe you anything!
But (and this is the biggest but in history) God has promised to be with you.
He has promised that he will never leave you.
He has said he will walk with you through the most difficult experiences of life.
He said, “I will never leave you.”
That much is certain.
God has said, “Ray, most of the things you dream about will never come true … at least not in the way you dream them. But here’s one thing you can count on. I will never leave you.”
—No matter what happens.
—No matter where you go.
—No matter what you do.
—No matter what mistakes you make.
I am learning that that is enough. If God will go with me then the rest of it—those cherished dreams and lofty plans—just don’t matter.
C. I Must Constantly Evaluate My Priorities in Light of Matthew 6:33.
Jesus himself laid down the great principle of life when he said, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
God’s kingdom must come first!
God’s plans must come first!
God’s cause on the earth must be my first concern!
God’s reputation must come before mine!
Why? Because God must come first! Period. End of discussion.
But notice the promise. When I put God first … “all these things” will be given to me.
What are “these things” that will be given to me? Let’s start with the basic stuff of life. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Friends. Meaningful work. God says, “If you’ll take care of my business, I’ll take care of your business.” Simple as that. A sweet deal. How would you like the Almighty to say, “Stop worrying about your rent. I’ll take care of it.” Sound bizarre? That’s exactly what Jesus is saying.
Put God first and “all these things” we worry about will fall into place.
—Not without difficulty.
—Not without pain.
—Not without a struggle.
Our trouble is, we want to reverse that promise. “Lord, once I take care of ’all these things,’ then I’ll put you first.” No deal. God doesn’t work that way.
Do you know what you call a person who puts “all these things ahead of God? You call that person an idolator! After all, what is idolatry except wanting anything too much? Ponder that one for a moment. Uncontrolled desire soon leads to idolatry because it reverses the ultimate priorities of life.
Here’s another way of looking at it. An idol is anything (besides God) that becomes a controlling obsession in your life.
—Can your children become idols to you?
—Can your marriage become an idol to you?
—Can your home become an idol to you?
—Can your health become an idol to you?
—Can your church become an idol to you?
—Can your career become an idol to you?
—Can your fondest dream become an idol to you?
The answer in every case is yes! Anything good—even the noblest and best things in life—can become an idol if it becomes controlling obsession to you. That’s the shocking reality of the Second Commandment. Idolatry has nothing to do with images of gold and silver. Those are just convenient symbols for ancient obsessions. We have our 20th-century idols. Most of them are simply good things that have taken over the controlling interest in our lives.
Which is why many of us are idolators and don’t even know it.
Two Warning Signs
Here are two simple warning signs that idolatry is creeping into your life:
1. When ends become means.
2. When things become more important than people.
Ends become means when we want something so badly that we are willing to do anything to get it. And things are more important than people when we are willing to sacrifice the relationships that mean the most to us in order to achieve our personal goals.
Fathers do it all the time. We sacrifice our children on the altar of our careers.
Mothers do it all the time. We sacrifice our marriages on the altar of materialism.
Holding On Too Hard
A friend of mine once came to me with a sobering message: “Ray, you’re holding on too hard. You’ve got to let go.” When she said it, I mumbled something spiritual but I didn’t believe her. It took me a year or more to see the truth.
My friend was right. I didn’t want to let go. That thing I was holding on to was the world to me. It was my baby, my dream, my future. I held on to it because I was deathly afraid to let go.
But that thing—a good thing in itself—became an idol to me. I couldn’t see it because I knew that it was a good thing. How could a good thing become an idol?
But my friend was right. I was holding on too hard. That “thing” had become an idol to me, a controlling obsession in my life.
God eventually had to take it away from me. But oh, it was painful. I fought and argued and wept and said terrible things. God paid no attention to my anger. He slowly and carefully pried my fingers away one by one. When he got down to the thumb, I fought him with all my strength—but to no avail. In the end he took back that which had always belonged to him.
The idol was destroyed but at a terrible cost.
In one of her books Elisabeth Elliot says this: “The Christian life is a process of God breaking our idols one by one.” I learned the hard way how true that is. God loves us too much to let anything come between us and him. As we grow older, God pulls our fingers away from the things we value the most. In the end there is nothing left but God.
An Idolatry Inventory
If all of this seems rather theoretical, let me share three questions you should ask about the things in life that matter the most to you. These three questions are a kind of “Idolatry Inventory” because they help us spot those places in life where we are holding on too hard.
1. Do I want this too much?
2. Has this become too important to me?
3. How would I feel if this were suddenly taken away from me?
Let’s focus on that one for a moment.
—What about your career? How would you feel if it suddenly disappeared?
—What if you suddenly lost your health?
—What about your marriage? Your children?
—What about your home?
—What about your eyesight? Or your hearing? Or your ability to walk?
—What about your parents?
—What about your money?
These are not easy questions to answer. But they point out a crucial fact. God has never promised us any of those things. Just because you have them now doesn’t mean you will have them tomorrow.
The only thing God has promised us is himself! Anything else is a bonus.
Three Sobering Conclusions
Let’s wrap this message up with three sobering conclusions.
1. Anything good can become an idol if we love it too much.
That should be completely clear by now. Idolatry lies in the worshiper, not in the thing worshiped. A golden calf is not an idol by itself. Left to itself, a golden calf is just a golden calf. It becomes an idol only when we begin to worship it. It is a wrong attitude that turns something good into something bad.
—Don’t blame your car if you aren’t happy. It’s your fault that you trust in your car to give you satisfaction.
—Don’t blame your boy friend if you aren’t happy. It’s your fault that you look to him to make you happy.
—Don’t blame your spouse if you aren’t happy. It’s your fault for looking to him/her to make you happy.
—Don’t blame your boss if you aren’t happy. He’s not responsible for your happiness.
—Don’t blame your children if you aren’t happy. God never meant for you to look to them as the source of your happiness.
—Don’t blame your new house if you aren’t happy. No house was ever meant to provide ultimate happiness.
—Don’t blame your church if you aren’t happy. No church can make you happy.
Happiness comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ. He alone can satisfy the deepest needs of your life. Looking to anything else for ultimate happiness is really just a sophisticated form of idolatry.
2. Because your children unconsciously absorb your values, once idolatry enters your family’s spiritual bloodstream, it is very diffi-cult to remove.
You’ve heard the old sayings, An acorn never falls far from the tree. Like father, like son. My mother, myself. Or the song by Harry Chapin—”The Cat’s in the Cradle,” with its haunting refrain, “You know I’m gonna be like you, Dad, I’m gonna be like you.”
Be warned. Your children are absorbing your deepest values every day. Note the verb. Values are “absorbed” not taught. Your children automatically learn what is important in life by watching you. If you worship your job, don’t be surprised if they worship theirs some day.
3. The ultimate tragedy of idolatry is that it takes all that you have and gives nothing in return.
Have you ever thought how strange life is? You are born, you grow up, get married, get a job, have children, raise your children, take a vacation, retire, and then you die. And your children, what do they do?
The same thing. And their children? The same thing.
You are going to live 60 or 70 or 80 years. For some of us most of that time is already gone. Truly we are here today and gone tomorrow. Take the whole span of human history. Where does your life show up on the screen? It’s just a microscopic blip.
You have two choices. You can spend your life chasing idols your hands have made. But what happens when you die? Your idols die with you.
Or you can spend your life doing God’s will. And when you die, it’s not over. Life has just begun.
The folly of idolatry is that it’s only for this life and then it’s over. You’re a loser now and a loser later. The idol robs you now and leaves you penniless in the grave. You’re cheated all the way around.
Idolatry makes sense if you are going to live forever on earth. But if you plan to die someday, it’s the greatest stupidity of all.
That’s why the Bible says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” You
aren’t going to be here forever. Make sure you use your time wisely.
Friend, your days are numbered. That’s why you have no time for idols.
The only lasting cure for idolatry is a fervent love for God. The words of an old hymn, written in the form of a prayer, form an appropriate close for this message: “Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole. I want Thee forever to live in my soul. Break down every idol, cast out every foe. Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”