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Idolatry

Israel Is An Example to Us

Idolatry is the reason God destroyed Israel as a nation. The northern tribes, called Israel were vanquished by Assyria and scattered as a people around 734 BC. The southern tribes, called Judah, were vanquished by Babylon and its people taken captive around 586 BC. They were destroyed because they left off serving God and served idols instead.

It’s true, they began to do horrible things to each other, too, such as murder, extortion, kidnapping, bribery of judges, mistreating slaves, and many such things that would justify judgment and punishment on any people. But God’s law was to “Love your neighbor as yourself." Therefore, all these crimes against each other was breaking God’s law, and so they were in rebellion against God himself.

You may think, “What does that mean to me? That happened thousands of years ago. Why should I care?" How God dealt with Israel affects you directly, as a Christian. In the New Testament, Paul wrote,

[Israel and the Jews] were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 1
Romans 11:20

1 [This and all scripture used here is from The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984.]

We have a direct warning from God that if we do what they did, we will be punished as they were punished. Furthermore, Paul wrote,

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Romans 15:4

The commands of God to them and the things that happened to them are examples and lessons to us about how we should behave and what will happen to us if we don’t. God promises to treat us in the same way he treated Israel. Therefore we should closely look at what God promised Israel, what they did and what happened to them as an example of how we should behave.

The Command

God promised Israel a blessing if they kept the law and a curse if they disobeyed the law. Before you say, “But we’re not under the law," let me explain, we are under the same ultimate law they were under, the Law of Love. Here is what I mean:

Jesus replied: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Matthew 22:37-40

All the Jewish law in the Old Testament – everything God wants us to do – is summed up in a single set of commands: Love God above all else and love each other.

To the disciples, Jesus said,

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
John 13: 34-35

Therefore, the same standard that applied to the Jews apply also to us; we are commanded to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Blessing and The Curse

God gave Israel a blessing and a curse. He would bless them if they kept his commands and a curse if they did not. This is what he said in Deuteronomy chapter 28

The Blessing The Curse

If you fully obey the LORD your God…

the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.

You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock – the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.

Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed.

You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.

The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The LORD your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.

The LORD will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the LORD your God and walk in his ways. 10 Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they will fear you.

The LORD will grant you abundant prosperity – in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground – in the land he swore to your forefathers to give you.

The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.

You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.

The LORD will make you the head, not the tail.

If you pay attention to the commands of the LORD your God, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.

However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:

You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.

Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.

The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.

You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.

The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand...

The LORD will plague you with diseases...

The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies… You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, .

The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind…

You will build a house, but you will not live in it…

The sights you see will drive you mad…

The LORD will afflict your knees and legs with painful boils that cannot be cured, spreading from the soles of your feet to the top of your head...

You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little…

The alien who lives among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. He will lend to you, but you will not lend to him. He will be the head, but you will be the tail.

All these curses will come upon you... Because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity

I condensed the Curses column considerably.

The point is, God will bless you greatly on this earth, here and now, if you follow his laws. But he will curse you greatly on this earth, here and now, if you reject his laws. The Israelites rejected the laws of God and they were destroyed as a nation; the people were sent into captivity.

What Does God Expect of Us?

The Tanach (Old Testament) gives two commands from which all the other commands are taken, even the Ten Commandments. Jesus defined them in Matthew 22:37-39,

Jesus replied: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

We have two overwhelming commands from God, and everything else from God is based on those two. The first and most important is that we should love YHWH with all our heart, soul and mind. That is obviously the most important. But how do we love God?

Shall we give him money? God created the world. Shall we give him sacrifices? God created all animals and humans. How can we give him something he can make himself by a spoken word? Shall we look to heaven with dreamy eyes and say, “I love you," trying to create a warm, fuzzy feeling in our soul? Bah! What does God need or want with that?

We have one thing that we can give to God which he would not take for himself nor would he have if we did not give it to him, and that is our allegiance to him as our one and only God.

So let’s ask God. How does God explain how to love him? The Apostle John said in 1 John 5:3,

This is love for God: to obey his commands.

So what are his commands? Paul said in Romans 13:9-10

The commandments, “Do not commit adultery," “Do not murder," “Do not steal," “Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

If you look at the Ten Commandments, they deal with two things, how to respond to God and how to love your neighbor as yourself. Here they are in Exodus 20: 1-17

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything. You shall not bow down to them nor worship them.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not give false testimony.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Commands 1-4 tell how to relate to God and 5-10 tell how to relate to other people. This is obviously not all the laws; it’s just the Big Ten. It’s summed up in this way, love God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself. Obeying God and loving him is to keep his commands; it is not simply having a warm, fuzzy generated feeling of sentiment.

We know how to love our neighbor, we love him and her in the same way we love ourselves. So what more is expected in loving God?

How Do We Love God?

There is one thing God has shown us that he wants us to do above all else in relation to him. It is expressed in this, “You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul." So how do we do that?

The first of the Ten Commandments say this:

Exodus 20:2-11

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.

“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.

“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Let’s analyze it.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me
  2. You shall make no idols
  3. You shall not take the name of God in vain
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy

Let’s discard the Sabbath day portion of this first. Keeping the Sabbath does not help God; it helps us. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27). It benefits us to keep the Sabbath and makes us stronger. What we’re focusing on in this section is how God wants us to worship him. Therefore, we don’t have to discuss the Sabbath in this section.

We’re left then with

  1. You shall have no other gods before me
  2. You shall make no idols
  3. You shall not take the name of God in vain

The name of God is YHWH (Yahweh). God simply wants us to respect him and not treat him as common, or a joke, or something to accentuate our profanity.

The real crux of the matter is the first two commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before me
  2. You shall make no idols

These are the serious ones. These are the ones that explain what God means when he says “You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind."

No Other Gods

The first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me."

In the ancient Israelite world, they were surrounded by nations that had many gods: Baal, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Dagon, Moloch, and more. It was a tendency to add gods to your pantheon, not to replace them. After all, if you replaced a god, he or she might get really angry and do something about it… to you. So you added gods in order not to offend any. Many people tried to make YHWH one of the gods they served.

YHWH said, “You shall have no other gods between you and me."

That includes anything important in your life, whether it be true or fictional. I say “fictional" because a lot of people believe things that are not true. They think those things are true. Such as children who believe in Santa Claus and the adult who believes it’s bad luck for a black cat to cross his path, and such things like that. Whether true or not, God says you shall not put anything between you and him.

Nothing between you and God. That’s how God wants us to worship him. Nothing is more important. Not a family member. Not money. Not career. Not another god, which is a supposedly powerful entity.

Deuteronomy 18:13 says, “You shall be perfect with YHWH your God." We tend to think the word perfect means “without sin." That is not what it means here. “Perfect" also means complete, finished, ripe and fit. The context in Deuteronomy 18:13 is this, when the Israelites migrated into the land of Canaan, they encountered people worshipping many gods. The Israelites were to get rid of all those gods and serve YHWH only. That is, they were to be “perfect" before YHWH, they were to have no other gods between them and YHWH. It must be an open line of communication and worship; nothing gets in the way.

When the “rich young ruler" came to Jesus and asked, “What more must I do…?" Jesus replied, “If you want to be perfect, get rid of your wealth and follow me." (Matthew 19:16-22). Jesus was not saying rich people could not get to heaven. He was saying that this man’s wealth had gotten between him and God, and the answer is to get rid of the wealth. Earlier, Jesus had said, “If your right hand offend you, cut it off and throw it away, for it’s better to enter into heaven with only one hand than to be thrown into hell" (Matthew 5:30). This man's "right hand," his wealth, had caused offense; it had gotten between him and God. Jesus said he must get rid of it. God comes before wealth.

At another time, Jesus said in Matthew 10:37-38,

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."

God’s command to us and the way to worship him is to have nothing at all between us and him; he is our God, the one we worship and serve. No person and no thing comes between us and God.

Let’s Talk About Mary

Some people pray to Mary, the supposed “Mother of God." (She was the mother of the body of Jesus.) How does that fit in with what the Bible says? If you pray to Mary, doesn’t that mean she would be coming between you and God?

The Bible says,

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
Isaiah 49:15.

I like the way the King James Version puts it, “Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee."

It is possible for a mother to forget her baby in its need. We read about it in the newspapers every year when a mother leaves her infant in the car and it dies in the heat because she forgot it was there. The Bible says God will never forget us, because his love for us is greater than that of a mother for her child. He should know, because he is the one who created the mother’s love.

The Bible says in Psalm 139:5, 5-12

You hem me in – behind and before…
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths [the grave], you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Everywhere we go, God is there. If we send a man to the moon, God is there. If we send a man to Mars, God is there. If we dig down into the lowest depths of the earth, God is there. We cannot go anywhere and not find God there. God is with us at all times anywhere.

The Bible says,

For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
1 Timothy 2:5

The only way to God is through Jesus. And Jesus said, “I and the Father are one." (John 10:30), which points back to the Jewish Shema, “Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God is One"

That means we don’t need a person, angel, spirit or saint to go between us and God. Furthermore, God commands us not to put anybody between him and us. The line of communication must be open, without obstacle, without hindrance, perfect.

Idols

The second of the Ten Commandments is,

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.
Exodus 20:4-6

An idol is a manmade image used to represent a god, a deity, in order to worship that being.

Some people think the words, “in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below," is the focal point. No image of anything in heaven or earth. But that cannot be the case because God told the Israelites to make images of angels:

And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Exodus 25:18-22

Likewise, Solomon had the Temple decorated with pictures of pomegranates (things on earth), flowers, cherubim and even bulls, to hold up the brass basin of water. Those are things in heaven and on earth, and God approved them, for it says, in 2 Chronicles 7:1-3:

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the LORD because the glory of the LORD filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the LORD above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD

We find then that God did not intend for us to have no images at all. It is that we should not have images to worship. He said, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them," and that includes praying to them. It means giving no regard to manmade items as something that comes between you and God.

A manmade object is not the god itself; it is only the representation of a god. Everybody knows that; even God knows that. Therefore, when you bow before an image, you are not fooling God when you say, “I’m not praying to the image; I’m praying to the person the image represents." God calls it idolatry.

When Jeroboam became king of Israel, he made two golden calves for two different cities. Then he said, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt" (1 Kings 12:28). Now Israel had come out of Egypt five hundred years earlier and these calves were made when Jeroboam became king. Therefore it is impossible for them to have thought those calves were the actual god. They had to understand the golden calves represented the God who brought Israel out of captivity.

Jeroboam said, “Here are your gods," thus calling each golden calf a god. Yet both calves represented the one God who brought Israel out of Egypt. Jeroboam – and people – and we – refer to the image as if it were the real thing. For example, if somebody sees my picture at my mother’s house, mom may say, “That is Jerry." That picture is not really me. I am me. That picture represents me, and everybody knows it, and nobody gets confused and thinks the picture is actually me. It’s a piece of paper with an image. To pray to an image like that, thinking you are praying to the person it represents, is idolatry. That’s what God calls it.

What Are Today’s Idols?

Idolatry is as much forbidden to us now as it was to the Israelites in the Old Testament. We should therefore pay attention to what God would call our idols.

Anything or anyone which is not God Himself to which you would ascribe spiritual power is an idol, whether you make an image of it or not.

Anything or anyone which is not God Himself from which you would seek spiritual power or information is an idol, whether it is represented by an image or not.

That would include crystal skulls, crystal balls, black cats crossing your path, consulting mediums, witches, palm readers, tarot card readers, statues of Mary at churches, the number 7 (good luck), the number 13 (bad luck), and more.

How Do We Love God?

God gave us two commands, on which is based everything else in the Bible. The first is, we should love God above all else with nothing between us and God. The second is that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.

The Bible explains that the way to love God is to keep his commands. It then says that his command is for us to love each other.

The first part, to love God, means we have nothing at all between God and us. Likewise, God puts nothing at all between him and us. God loves us with no conditions, intermediaries or obstacles, and we are to respond in the same way.

The way we love God is evident by how carefully we follow his commands. That is, not trying to keep the Ten Commandments to gain righteous standing before God, but to respond to God’s love for us by loving him back.

 

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