No Idols

Reading: Dt 9.12-21; 1 Jn 5.18-21

Last century, a group of students at Harvard once tried to fool the famous professor of zoology Louis Agassiz. They took parts from a number of different bugs and with great skill attached them together to make a creation they were sure would baffle their teacher.

On the chosen day they brought it to him and asked him to identify it. As he inspected it with great care, the students grew more and more sure they had tricked this genius.

Finally, Professor Agassiz straightened up and said, "I have identified it."

Scarcely able to control their amusement, they asked its name. Agassiz replied, "It is a humbug."

How easily do we get taken in by a counterfeit?

Counterfeit Gods and Counterfeit Worship

The first commandment is specifically against counterfeit gods, the second against counterfeit worship. These two are very closely related, and the warning and promise are undoubtedly to be taken with both commandments – "Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation. But I show my love to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my laws" (Ex. 20.4-6).

This commandment is not a prohibition against sculpture and other forms of art. Such are a natural and important expression of the human personality. Not surprisingly, they had their own approved place within the tabernacle and Temple.

Already, in the first commandment, complete dissociation from other gods and total allegiance to the Lord are required. This command denounces the worship of objects representing some false god. But it goes further – they were not to try to make images to represent the Lord, the true God, either. It seems likely that the golden calves set up at Bethel and Dan by Jeroboam I (1 Kings 12.25ff) were thought to represent the Lord himself. To attempt to represent God, whether under beastly or human form, is to make a very grave mistake –

We may, of course, say that all of this is interesting, but not very relevant. We see ourselves well past any temptation to set up "images" or "idols". And yet… we seem to find many ways to trim God down to the size we want him to be.

To some extent, it was to this problem that Jesus addressed himself when conversing with the woman of Samaria in John 4. The immediate issue was not about idol-worship – just a question of where true worship should take place. Jesus replied, "God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is" (v. 24.). That does not mean that definite places and times of worship are unimportant, but this woman's practical lifestyle was completely separated from her worship of God on Mount Gerizim. When we worship a God whom we hedge around with practical limitations (so far as our lives are concerned), we are in effect making images and idols.

It is the God who loves us with an everlasting love who demands our total allegiance and true worship. One writer has put it, "His jealousy is a lover's jealousy. As a faithful lover of Israel he demands the faithfulness of his people."

Keep yourselves safe from false gods

The first letter of John bears a strong spiritual message about such things as fellowship, light and darkness, love and hatred, truth and falsehood. It can come as quite a shock to reach the concluding appeal – "My children, keep yourselves safe from false gods!" (1 John 5.21). Our immediate reaction is to wonder just what it has to do with what John has been writing about. It would seem that John is writing against some early form of Gnosticism – a movement that claimed to offer special "knowledge". It seems that a fellow called Cerinthus was spreading his form of Gnosticism in Ephesus when John was there. Initiation into this secret knowledge was claimed to bring release and salvation. Some Gnostic systems taught a strictly disciplined life, others that morality did not matter since evil could not harm the enlightened spirit.

The writings of Irenaeus in the second century ad shed considerable light on the conflict between Cerinthus and Christianity. Essentially, Cerinthus separated the man Jesus from the divine Christ or Spirit. We note that John, in his letter, is specifically concerned about those who deny that Jesus is the Messiah (2.22), and that Jesus Christ "came as a human being" (4.3).

So, coming to the end of the letter, John makes three strong affirmations (all beginning with the words "we know"). The first is that sin is incompatible with the Christian life (5.18). The second is the radical difference of the children of God (v. 19) – we note however, that John has insisted that the redemptive work of Christ is available for the whole world (2.2). The third (and most fundamental) is that the Son of God has come (in the flesh). He brings of true understanding, the knowledge of the true God. As Christians, our true life and meaning are in this true God and his Son, Jesus Christ (v. 20).

Against the false claimants to truth, John affirms, "This is the true God, and this is eternal life. My children, keep yourselves safe from false gods!" (vv, 20b, 21) The Christian must have nothing to do with heathen idol-worship, but John goes further here by equating the worship of inadequate or false concepts of God with idolatry – even when people use "Christian" words to talk about it.

We may well be tempted to worship an idea of God that is less than the true God known and revealed through his Son, Jesus Christ.

The admiration of Jesus merely as a great Man, a great Teacher and a great Example comes into this category. He is all of these, of course, but to worship him as nothing more than a great Man is idolatry. True worship must recognise who Jesus is – the Son of God who came into our human history. It must acknowledge the implications of his coming, being drawn by his teaching and example to receive the mighty rescue he has brought about for us in his dying. It must allow him to be the Lord of life, for he is risen from the dead.

This is not to deny that many, on their "journey to faith", have at some time thought of Jesus in one of these ways (note Jn. 9). But to stop there, to fail to come under the Kingly Rule of God, is to worship a mental image that is less than the living Christ.

But we do this, not simply in relation to "the Man Jesus", but also more generally in our worship of God. Too much we make him a mere "God of the sanctuary", concerned only with our "spirituality" – the phase our lives enter on Sunday morning – too little as the one to whom we are responsible for all of life.

In keeping from idols, we must learn to worship God in spirit and truth (Jn 4.24).

One writer has this comment, "It's my pride that makes me independent of God. It's appealing to feel I am the master of my fate; I run my own life, I call my own shots; I go it alone. But that feeling is my basic dishonesty. I can't go it alone. I have to get help from other people, and I can't ultimately rely on myself. I am dependent on God for my very next breath. It is dishonest of me to pretend that I am anything but a man, small, weak and limited. So, living independent of God is self-delusion. It's not just a matter of pride being an unfortunate little trait and humility being an attractive little virtue, it's my inner psychological integrity that's at stake. When I am conceited, I am lying to myself about what I am. I am pretending to be God, and not man. My pride is the idolatrous worship of myself, and that is the national religion of hell."

So there you have it. "Don't make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Don't bow down to any idol or worship it…" "My children, keep yourselves safe from false gods!"

Keep yourself safe by trusting yourself to the true God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. Keep yourself safe by receiving his gift of eternal life. Keep yourself safe by living to do his will day by day.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 21st September 1997
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.
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