Tag Archives: Holiness

Keep Yourselves from Idols

 

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

With these words the Apostle of love concludes his first epistle with an exhortation that the saints are to avoid idolatry of the heart.  While not his primary interest, throughout the letter John provides a series of tests for evidence of faith, namely through increasing knowledge of God, growth in holiness, and expression of love for others.  With this in mind, it becomes all the more interesting that he concludes his letter as a father toward his children with a statement of keeping oneself from idols.

In beginning our exposition of this verse, we may ask, what are idols?  Why are we to keep ourselves from them?  And how are we to keep ourselves from them?  The Old Testament often outlines the image into which the New Testament supplies the paint and it is true with regard to idols as well.  In the Old Testament we get a clear picture of what idolatry looks like.  For example, at the foot of Sinai, restless for the return of Moses, Aaron leads the people into fashioning a golden calf:

So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’”

From this passage we gain insight into the nature of idolatry.  Though obviously it is a physical, tangible, visible idol toward which they offer worship, the issue is more a matter of the heart.  Additionally, we can see there is sometimes a level of syncretism within idolatry as well; worshipping a golden calf yet giving it the credit for deliverance from Egypt and proclaiming a feast to the Lord on behalf of the idol.  God demands not only external worship, but internal worship as well.

Nowadays, we are unlikely to see a golden calf perched on a hillside, though certainly in some cultures and religions idols and icons still maintain a very visible presence.  Nevertheless, though less obvious, idolatry runs rampant in the land.  Anything that the human heart elevates above the one true living God, by way of desire, time, attention, money, habits, etc. is idolatry.  While we may not have golden calves hidden away in our closets, we likely have golden calves hidden away in our hearts.  Puritan David Clarkson summarizes well,

“Idolatry is to give that honor and worship to ‘the creature’, which is due to the Creator alone. When this worship is communicated to other things, whatever they are, we thereby make them idols, and commit idolatry. Now this worship due to God alone, is not only given by the savage heathen to their stick and stones—and by papists to angels, saints and images—but also by carnal men to their lusts.”[1]

Pressing forward towards further identifying what may be termed an idol, Thomas Watson in his book The Godly Man’s Picture identifies the chief form of idolatry as the worship of self.  Surely this is becoming increasingly evident in our ever-changing world.  Interestingly, a passage from 1 Corinthians 6 places idolatry squarely between sins that are sexual in nature, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality” 1 Corinthians 6:9

Romans 1 provides additional support for this sexual form of idolatry that reaches its zenith in homosexual desires, “24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Romans 1:24-27

If our identification of idols at this point is beginning to take shape far beyond simply the presence of a golden calf, then we may ask of the passage why it’s important to keep ourselves from them.

At its heart, this exhortation from the Apostle John is a restatement of the Second Commandment and is in fact a call to proper worship of God.  Here is the original command from God, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  Exodus 20:4-6

In this passage, God gives a clear reason for His prohibition against idolatry, namely that He is a jealous God.  Giving worship to anything else, in essence robs God of the worship due His name and provokes His jealousy.

Through the message given by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel, we may note how idolatry, even those of sticks and stones, becomes internalized, “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces….” Ezekiel 14:3

The Apostle John in his first epistle is keenly aware that idolatry of the heart will keep one from eternal life because it is a reflective pattern of an unregenerate heart.  Note additional commentary from elsewhere in the New Testament:

 “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Ephesians 5:5

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:5

In the two passages above we may glean that covetousness, i.e. unlawful desires of the heart, are labeled as idolatry.  So again we find that idolatry, this time from a different perspective, is a violation of God’s holy law, namely “Thou shall not covet” Ex 20:17

Why then are we to avoid idols? 1) It robs God of the glory and worship that is due His name. 2) It is a violation of God’s holy law 3) It hinders and inhibits man’s proper relationship with His Creator. 4) It elevates concern for self above concern for others.

Turning our attention to address how it is that we are to keep ourselves from idols, we may conclude with 4 summary statements.  1) Only a regenerate heart can truly avoid the plague of idolatry. 2) Be alert to all presence of idolatry in your heart 3) Renew your mind daily by the Word of God 4) Pray for God to reveal any unrecognized idols

For John to summarize his letter in this way, he is ultimately defining the chief obstacle for everything he outlined in the previous 5 chapters.  Idols stifle one’s knowledge of God.  Idols are contrary to growth in holiness.  Idols elevate self over love for others.  How can one be sure to pass the “tests” of 1 John?  Simple, “little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

 

[1] http://www.gracegems.org/SERMONS/Clarkson_soul_idolatry.htm

A Great Light

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah 9:2

The Scripture’s great contrast between light and darkness is here on display through the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning, in the near, hope in the midst of the Assyrian invasion, yet in the far, a future greater in hope found in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, which like so much of Old Testament prophecy looks toward the future and sees an amalgamation of events (often called prophetic perspective) this prophecy is set in the midst of the coming judgment on Israel as God-ordained punishment for their apostasy from God. The darkness expresses the hopelessness of the current situation, yet the language of Isaiah, “…have seen a great light” is that of the prophetic perfect, used to express the surety of a future event as though it has already happened. Commenting on this passage Calvin writes,

“He speaks of future events in the past tense, and thus brings them before the immediate view of the people, that in the destruction of the city, in their captivity, and in what appeared to be their utter destruction, they may behold the light of God. It may therefore be summed up in this manner: “Even in darkness, nay, in death itself, there is nevertheless good ground of hope; for the power of God is sufficient to restore life to his people, when they appear to be already dead.”[1]

Certainly, a restoration from the hands of Israel’s captors is in view, yet we must not limit our understanding of this prophecy to the events surrounding Israel and Assyria, particularly since this passage is referenced elsewhere.

Written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel of Matthew 4:15-16 cites this passage from Isaiah 9 in the context of Jesus beginning His earthly ministry

“12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:12-17

This further illumination by the Spirit of God, the Divine Author of Scripture, aids in our understanding of the fullness or fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah, namely that found in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the great light that offers hope in the midst of a darkened world. Turning again to Calvin we read,

“If, therefore, we wish to ascertain the true meaning of this passage, we must bring to our recollection what has been already stated, that the Prophet, when he speaks of bringing back the people from Babylon, does not look to a single age, but includes all the rest, till Christ came and brought the most complete deliverance to his people. The deliverance from Babylon was but a prelude to the restoration of the Church, and was intended to last, not for a few years only, but till Christ should come and bring true salvation, not only to their bodies, but likewise to their souls.”[2]

Christ Himself makes this connection in John 8:12 when He states,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

In John’s Gospel, this statement is buttressed with the truths about Christ being the Light from chapter 1, verses4-5, 9 and chapter 3:19-21. Our Lord’s declaration that He is light has profound biblical meaning. Primarily, it asserts His deity bringing to mind such Old Testament declarations such as Exodus 13:21, where the pillar of fire led the way for the Israelites in the wilderness; Psalm 27:1 “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear”; Micah 7:8; Isaiah 60:20; as well as 1 John 1:5. The declaration of light is a declaration of purity and holiness, in which there is no shadow or defect (James 1:17).  Additionally, several Old Testament passages assert that God’s Word is light (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 6:23) adding to the profundity of John 1:1.

Secondarily, by stating He is light, Christ assumes the role that God had intended for Israel to occupy as a city on a hill whose light was to shine forth to the world, yet because of their disobedience failed to properly fulfill the mission of God. Therefore, God has appointed His True Servant Israel, His Son, to go forth as a light unto the nations bringing salvation to the ends of the world. Isaiah 42:6; 49:6

This advent season, may our eyes be drawn to the Light of the world. May we realize that He alone can shine forth in a world of darkness. This Light alone possesses the light of life. Walking in spiritual darkness, dead in our trespasses and sins is a hopeless and dire situation that leaves us under the wrath of God and destined for the experience of His everlasting judgment. May we look toward the light, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and see Him as our only hope. Surety in a world of darkness and a beacon for all who come to Him in repentance and faith.

 

 

[1] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. VII Isaiah 1-32, Baker 2005, pg. 298.

[2] Calvin, pg. 299

The Vertical Nature of Sin

“How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Genesis 39:9b

Think of a time recently when you have sinned.  What was your response to it?  Did  you view it in it’s proper perspective or did you view it as something external that you did or didn’t do; an action or word maybe?  Was it primarily an offense to your neighbor or an offense to God?  These questions matter and the order of primacy is important, in fact, critical.

In Genesis 39, we are nearly in the middle of the historic narrative of Joseph’s life.  Having been sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37) because of their jealousy and hatred of him, Joseph was shipped to Egypt.  Yet through the providence of God he found himself exalted to the position of overseer for all the house of Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s and captain of the guard.  Soon Joseph, “handsome in form and appearance” (Gen. 39:6), caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife, who began to seduce him.  Upon refusing her advances, Joseph replies, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” and herein lays our subject, The Vertical Nature of Sin.

What if Joseph, perhaps we would view him today as a political assistant or aide, had surrendered to the advancements of his boss’ wife?  There would normally be two responses to an adulterous scandal such as this.  The first is usually the loudest voice, judgment from the world.  In our day, the media would’ve been in a frenzy over a political scandal such as this.  We can call this the “casting stones” response.  The world loves to throw stones and pile on when someone commits an “error” because it makes them feel better about their own imperfections.  Far from recognizing how short of the glory of God they have fallen, the world loves to measure their own value and “goodness” in terms of others.  “As long as I’m not as bad as that guy” is the normal response.  Largely, from this perspective we would not see it called sin, but instead a mistake or lapse in judgment.  It should go without saying that this response is ignorant and contrary to the Gospel.

A second response proceeds largely from the Christian worldview and it’s focus is on the sin, even calling it as such, but the primary direction of the focus is horizontal.  What I mean by this is the emphasis is placed on the relationships involved.  “How could ‘Joseph’ do this and destroy a marriage?”  “How could ‘Potiphar’s wife’ treat her husband so disrespectfully and cheat on him?”  “How could she commit adultery?”  “What about the kids?”  “What they did is just so terrible.”  Think about this.  How often do you hear these responses within Christian circles?  Are these responses wrong?  Not necessarily, but they miss the primary point.  Sin is not first against other people or even oneself, it is first and foremost against God.

Note Joseph’s response, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”  His chief concern was not whether he ruined his career with an “indiscretion”.  It was not mainly about how he might destroy a family or even be a disappointment to his own friends and family.  His focus was not horizontal at all, but was rightly concerned with his sin being an offense against the all-holy God.  This is the proper response and attitude toward sin, whether in our own lives or as we seek to bring a sinner to repentance, and it is from this direction that the horizontal aspect of sin can be rightly addressed.  Sin must be viewed first in light of the holiness of God in order to understand the magnitude of its offense.

We can hardly cast blame or be surprised at the world when she judges sin with a Pharisaical eye as in response one from above.  She is after all unregenerate and under the influence of Satan (though God is certainly sovereign). Our surprise should be when our brothers and sisters in Christ (or even ourselves) are first focused on the external, horizontal effects of sin and fail to first recognize the internal (heart) and vertical nature of sin.  Failing to properly recognize sin is a distortion of the Gospel which will at best lead to moralism and at worst send the sinner down a different avenue of sin.  The level of offensiveness of our sin in relation to God is supremely higher than that between our fellow man.  In your recognition of sin, begin with God.

See also David’s response in 2 Samuel 12:13 and Psalm 51.