Tag Archives: idolatry

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

The Theology of Santa

If you were to ask 10 professing Christians to give their opinion on the use of Santa Claus this time of year, specifically as he relates to young children, their responses would likely range from one end of the spectrum to the other.  On the one hand someone might say that there is nothing wrong with having a little fun and “sharing the magic of Christmas” by telling little ones about Santa, toys, reindeer, his sleigh, etc.  While on the other hand someone might strictly prohibit such folklore for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the confusion of Santa’s characteristics with those of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Before you dismiss this post as an attack on the mythological kingdom of Santa, let’s logically work through this issue and think clearly and biblically about what is involved.

Last year I posted an excellent article on Santa written by Pastor John Piper’s wife, Noel.  In that article she described how she addressed Santa Claus with her children as they were growing up and she gives helpful advice to fellow parents who are faced with the same challenge.  There was a lot of feedback on that post with really good comments, but unfortunately they were on Facebook, so we’re left without a record to reflect back on here.  I commend that article to you as well and hope that you may find it helpful.  Since that post seemed to reflect the spectrum of opinions that I alluded to earlier, I thought it necessary this year to explore a bit deeper into the persona of Santa that the world has created.

Below is the old Christmas song that we’ve all grown up with which describes some of Santa’s characteristics and some biblical issues with this, which we’ll identify below:    

You better watch out!
Better not cry!
Better not pout!
I’m telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.

He’s making a list
and checking it twice.
He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.

He sees when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!

You better watch out!
Better not cry!
Better not pout!
I’m telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin’ to town.

I know what some of you are probably thinking, “Is this guy seriously going to dissect a silly make believe children’s song?”  “What is the harm in Santa?”  The problem is not Santa himself because he doesn’t exist.  The problem is the thought process behind him and just how closely his character mimics that of Jesus.  Something we’ll refer to here as the Theology of Santa. 

Take a look at the seemingly innocent song from above and think about it not just in terms of your adult mind, but through the mind of a child.  In the first stanza, bad behavior, namely “pouting” or “crying” is discouraged because Santa is coming.  The motive for good behavior comes from the thought of being rewarded for it and there is an anticipation of his coming so as to receive that reward.  Compare this thought that is taught to children from the earliest of ages with what we should be teaching our children from the Bible.  We read of quite a different message in Isaiah 64:6 “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”  Here Isaiah puts our “good deeds” in perspective by stating they are literally like a polluted (bloody) rag.  Likewise the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:9 states “and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  Paul informs us that his (and our) righteousness is not of his own, but instead the righteousness is actually God’s that comes from faith in Jesus.  Additionally, the Bible does not merely reduce sin to bad behavior that goes unrewarded, but it clearly states that sin will be punished by death. Romans 3:23 With this we can introduce our first danger of propagating the Theology of Santa.    Danger #1: Good behavior is rewarded.  Bad behavior isn’t punished, but simply goes unrewarded.

In the second stanza we see the division of good vs. bad, or “naughty vs. nice”, as it’s so eloquently described.  This division, captured in a “list”, highlights the importance of being good because the record of rights and wrongs are closely monitored and those who have met the performance requirements will be deemed “good”, while those who fail the standard are classified “bad”.  This thought assumes the ability of a person (or child) to be moral based on their own ability and establishes a standard external to themselves.  Contrast that with Romans 3:10-17 that highlights the sinful nature of man 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  Additionally, Psalm 103:12 affirms that a record of transgressions are not kept and held against those who are children of God, but instead they are cast “as far as the east is from the west.”  Also we read in Colossians 2:14 that God cancelled our “record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.”  This brings us to summarizeDanger #2: Perform to the best of your moral ability.  A record of your good is weighed against the record of your bad and you will be rewarded accordingly.

In the third stanza, we get a closer glimpse into the mythical attributes of Santa.  1) Omnipresence: he knows when you’re sleeping and awake.  2) Omniscience: he knows whether you’ve been good or bad.  3) Omnipotent: his ability to distribute rewards or withhold them based on performance.  Clearly these are attributes of deity assigned to a mythical man for the purpose of inspiring good behavior.  Again, moralist behavior is emphasized for its own sake.  The biblical implications here are quite obvious, because it’s clear that those attributes given to Santa are the same possessed by God.  Not only is this idolatrous, but creates an obstacle in trying to explain to children who God really is and in describing His uniquely divine characteristics.  Likewise, it subverts the biblical message of holiness in the lives of believers.   Danger #3: God is not unique in His divine characteristics.

Likely some of you are dismissing this entire study as pointless and juvenile, but my prayer is that others of you are seriously considering the implications.  It is a shame that kids are taught more about how to respond and react to Santa than they are to Jesus Christ.  Look again at the brief list of issues that we’ve come up with and think about them in terms of your children.  How their behavior is not guided by biblical standards, but instead through a moralistic program that rewards performance.  The reward drives the behavior, not the desire to please or honor Christ.  Second, think about the elaborate system that is set up in teaching young children about Santa.  Fundamentally it is lying to them, no matter how it’s dissected because we are telling them someone exists that truly doesn’t (and no, the actual figure St. Nicholas did not possess characteristics of deity so the two figures are not equal).  Finally, once this system is created and the annual anticipation is built up for Santa year after year, what becomes of the child when he/she is actually confronted with the truth?  Heartbroken?  Feelings of being lied to?  Are they then to ever believe that God actually exists, since some of His attributes have been assigned to a Santa that now doesn’t exist?  Why should they believe that Jesus will judge us according to His moral law and that it’s through no performance of our own, but by relying on the righteousness of Christ instead?  Why should they believe that, for fear that they may only have the proverbial rug pulled from under them again?  Simply stated, the benefits do not outweigh the consequences.

One final thought, children aside, what we’ve determined to be the “Theology of Santa” is actually symptomatic of our society today.  The “God” that many people worship in this country is not too far removed from the one described above.  We’ve reduced God to a jolly father-time looking old man that has our best interests at heart and is there merely to bless us with rewards.  As long as our good outweighs our bad, then we’re in good standing with Him.  Throw in a few genie lamp rubs of “God help me through this” and what we have is not too different than the figure described earlier.  Author and professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Christian Smith coined a term known as moralistic therapeutic deism that we can apply here.  He summarizes those who unknowingly ascribe to this as having 1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.  2)  God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.  3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about one-self.  4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem. 5) Good people go to heaven when they die. 

At its heart, this is precisely what is on display with the logic behind something as seemingly benign as the Santa Claus myth.  A god created in the mind of man that exists to reward us as long as we are on our best behavior and fair to one another.  He is distant, uninvolved, and disinterested until it becomes mainly about us and then He becomes personal.  Any figure/persona/being/object that is given deified attributes and is placed on a pedestal either equal or above the one true living God as He is described in the Bible is an idol.  To worship or revere such a figure is idolatrous and a violation of the 1st Commandment.  We’ve overlooked that in this country all in the name of fun and “Christmas spirit”, but it’s not all that different than the god of Hinduism or Buddhism, and as we’ve seen the god of some professing Christians as well.  Pray about this and make biblically informed decisions about how best to handle this with your own children.  Don’t follow the path that the world creates for the sake of conformity.  Follow the path of Christ for the sake of obedience.