No Substitutes, Please!
BENT, BROKEN, UNBOWED
The Ten Commandments for Today
IMAGES? NO SWEAT!
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” is the New Testament summary of the first four commandments that Moses was given by God on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament. The first of those original ten: “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” (Deuteronomy 5:6, 7, NIV) sets the stage for all the rest. I am, says God, the One who has made you and saved you. I am the One who provides for you. I am the only living, breathing, speaking and responding God there is, therefore I have a claim on you that no one else has. I have priority over everything and everyone else in your life.
As we look at the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol…” we need to investigate just what “idols” represent in our lives today. First of all we will look at the tangible things we use to represent God, and secondly we examine some of the things with which we replace God as our number one priority in life.
1. THE KNOCK-OFFS
This second commandment is sometimes added as part of the first. In the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions, the first two commandments are combined as one. But there is a difference between the two. The first one commandment focuses on THEOLOGY—there is only ONE God. The second focuses on the CHARACTER of God and how, because of His character, He is to be treated. He is nothing like the false gods that men have created to either represent Him or to replace Him.
Here’s what the second says in its context (Deuteronomy 5:8-10, NIV): “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 sins 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.”
R. Albert Mohler says that: “The first commands us to worship only the one true God, and the second commands us to worship Him as He would be worshiped” (Words From the Fire, page 46).
There is a ton of stuff in these verses, so here we go!
The first thing we need to note is the word, “make.” That helps us narrow down what this command is referring to. We love to “make” stuff, or to acquire something tangible that someone else has made. We take pleasure in what we have made, or acquired. What we have made or acquired attracts us because it resembles us physically or emotionally or spiritually. The human spirit insists on its “image.” Why is it so important for example, to have a biological son who bears the image of his parents as well as their name? Adoption doesn’t have the same appeal because we NEED to “make” something that is like us. We have the tendency to put what we make or have acquired on a pedestal. Mohler comments that human beings are natural idolaters, and that we need to be honest enough to admit it. “Why are fallen sinful human beings born idolaters? The reason is simple—we must worship, we will worship. Even as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the human soul. The human soul will find an object of worship, either on the shelf, on the altar, in the mirror, or in heaven. We are born idolaters” (ibid, page 47).
Acts 17 is a famous example. Here we have Paul arriving on Mars Hill and observing that the Athenians had statues built to every conceivable god, including one to the “unknown” god. They didn’t want to miss one! Even an atheist worships—he worships a concept—the concept of atheism.
The problem with physical representations, even when they are representations of the true and loving God, is that they are poor substitutes for God. They are finite and God is infinite. Some may make the argument that the images aren’t meant to be worshipped, that they are simply a representation of the one being worshipped, a kind of reminder. But humans being what they are, it is all too easy to slip into the belief that these physical “representations” actually hold some kind of power to respond to us. For example, touching St. Peter’s toes in Rome, praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, going on the Hajj to Mecca, morph into sources of blessing bypassing the true Source of blessing, God Himself.
The bottom line of this second commandment: “You shall not make for yourselves an idol…” is this: NO KNOCK-OFFS, please. Do you know what a “knock-off” is? Let say we have a genuine bottle of Chanel #5 perfume, or a genuine suit made by Giorgio Armani. A one-ounce bottle of Chanel #5 in its highest concentration (not watered down) is worth $260.00 US dollars. A genuine Armani suit for men costs between $1,500 and $3,500. People would love to have the genuine article, but most people can’t afford the real thing so they often look for knock-offs, things that resemble the genuine article and may even have the name of the genuine article on them, but are not the genuine article. You are in a foreign country and someone tries to sell you a gold Rolex watch for $50.00 when you know (or should) that a genuine gold Rolex (one model of ladies watch) costs between $30,000 and $75,000—you know that you have a knock-off and not the real thing.
And God says: “Don’t make a “knock-off” of me!”
At the foot of Mount Sinai, as Moses received the Ten Commandment, the Hebrews , frustrated by the delay, decided to replace a God hidden by smoke and flame and untouchable, with one that they could “manage”. They persuaded Aaron to make a golden calf. The influence of their former masters, the Egyptians, had not be erased from their hearts and minds (Exodus 32). Whether or not they simply meant to create a physical representation of God, or replace Yahweh completely, is not a question we can answer. But the worship celebration got out of hand and began to resemble the pagan worship that the Israelites were familiar with from their experience in Egypt (32:6, 17, 18).
Mohler says: “…the very ‘thingness’ of the idol betrays its finitude” (Words From the Fire, page 48). No representation of God can be a complete representation and because it isn’t complete it is faulty.
This is another danger is “making.” When we make or acquire something, we take pride in what we have done or acquired. And the next logical step, or at least a step down the line, is to begin to believe that our God is of our own making too; that He is what we decide He will be. In today’s society God is, for many people, what they have determined in their own minds, He is. We forget that God made us; we didn’t make Him. We forget that He made us in His image; we don’t make Him into our image of what we think He is like. Somewhere back in the deepest recesses of our hardened, imperfect hearts we need to make Him into what we imagine Him to be perhaps in order to keep Him from making us into the image He has planned for us.
We project, consciously or not, onto that physical image what we believe about God. Years ago, though it wasn’t considered appropriate to have a statue of Jesus in Baptist churches, we did often have pictures of Jesus throughout classrooms in the building. Usually, based on our perceived ideas that Jesus would look like the majority of the congregation in those days, the image in the pictures was of a white man, blue-eyed, and attractive. He did not look Middle Eastern in any way. We imposed on our image of Jesus what we wanted Him to look like. It’s an easy leap to begin to impose on Him what we think He should act like as well.
An image can be controlled, moved. We can treat it in whatever way we feel appropriate. And so we treat God; as though we can control Him, move Him to whatever part or priority in our lives we choose. We can worship Him whatever way we think is appropriate rather than discovering how He wants to be approached.
John Calvin is quoted as saying that we should not make an image or likeness of God because the only things that are to bear His image or likeness are US. Romans 8:29 (NIV) says: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…” This may be what Paul meant when he said to the Athenians in Acts 17:29: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” In the deepest recesses of the human heart is there the tendency to confine God to some other image rather than to submit to Him so that we can become the image of God to a lost world?
Paul made this statement to the Athenians: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17, 24, 25, NIV).
How many people try to put God in the box called the church building and confine Him to that place? How often have you and I prayed and asked God to come and be present with us as though unless we invite Him, He isn’t already there? We need to acknowledge that He is everywhere—He is OMNIPRESENT—and it is we who need to be reminded that He is present and that His presence should influence every aspect of our lives. I catch myself praying, “Lord, be with so-and-so.” By saying that I am unconsciously saying that there is a possibility that God won’t be with that person for whatever reason. I am saying that God is confined by space and time as I am by asking Him to be sure He’s on Highway 401 at the precise time that so-and-so is. I am conforming Him to my image.
Do you see how subtle this is? So it is with a representation of God, whatever form that might take.
In Paul’s world, the images were presented with food they couldn’t eat, spoken to when they couldn’t hear, and performed before when they couldn’t see. The belief was that the ancient gods NEEDED all this to be placated.
God doesn’t need anything from us. He doesn’t even need our worship. We aren’t doing Him a favour by singing to Him, or praying to Him, preaching about Him, or serving Him. But that is how we often act and how we often think. We think He is dependent on us because we think of Him in human terms. We act as though we have to keep Him happy by doing whatever. We treat Him like an idol or like pagans treat a false god. What He wants from us, he wants not because He needs it but because it is “our spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1, NIV)) because He is God and everything we are and have and anticipate is because of Him—which takes us back to the first commandment. He’s the ONLY ONE. To love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind is to honour Him by not diminishing Him by representing Him in a way that is not faithful to Him.
Of course, I am not suggesting we do away with our buildings so that people don’t confine Him to a God of a building. We just have to clearly and often remind ourselves and remind others that this “image” of His dwelling place is not His dwelling place. I am not suggesting that we tear down the cross that sits on the wall at the front of our sanctuary. We just have to remember that the cross only tells us part of the story of who God is. I’m not suggesting that we stop wearing crosses on gold chains around our necks. We simply have to remember that there is no protection or virtue in the “thing.” If we are prone to put more value on the representation, put our trust in the “knock-off” rather than in the real thing, then it’s better to avoid the “knock-off.”
We often only quote the first part of this second commandment: “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... and that’s where we stop. But the next part is important. The verse continues with “…for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” We need to define this word “jealous.” We think of jealousy as a bad thing. So when we read this word as applied to God we apply that same meaning and look at God as though He were petty. But “jealous” has several meanings. My dictionary says this: “feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages : he grew jealous of her success.
• feeling or showing suspicion of someone's unfaithfulness in a relationship : a jealous boyfriend.
• fiercely protective or vigilant of one's rights or possessions : Howard is still a little jealous of his authority | they kept a jealous eye over their interests.
• (of God) demanding faithfulness and exclusive worship.”
The Hebrew word used here for “jealous” means: “not bearing any rival; the severe avenger of departure from Himself.” In other words, no other gods and no “knock-offs.” The subtlety here is the difference between totally different gods and things that are not the true God though they may, in part, represent Him in our minds. Remember we are to love Him with all our MINDS.
Mohler writes: “He is jealous for His own name and jealous for His own character and jealous for His own glory” (Words From the Fire, page 53). God will not allow us to diminish Him by only partially representing Him in some tangible form, or by falling into the trap of thinking Him to be as limited as that tangible form is.
J. B. Phillips made the phrase “Your God Is Too Small” famous. Our tendency to reduce Him to something we can see and touch can affect our theology even when we don’t want it to. God doesn’t take that lightly.
So we have the initial command: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or in the waters below” In other words, a knock-off that tries to look like the real thing. Then comes the stern warning: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” God doesn’t share His glory with anything or anyone else. Then we come to, “…I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
This sounds cruel. It also sounds like a contradiction to other passages of Scripture (i.e. Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20). I don’t want us to get bogged down here and miss the point of the passage, so let me try to explain this simply. Remember what the first sin was? Adam and Eve thought it would be more to their advantage to be like God—in other words to be their own gods, to be “knock-offs” of the real thing. Essentially nothing has changed in all the centuries that have passed between Adam and Eve and us. That first sin was a failed attempt at a coup, the overthrow of the government of God over His creation by part of His creation. Though Adam and Eve might not have thought of it as an expression of hate, God saw it that way. Sin had to be punished then, as it has to be punished now.
When Adam sinned, every person born after him was born with an inherited sin nature—everyone is born a sinner and is condemned to be punished because of it. I believe that’s what the first part of the passage is referring to. The mention of a certain number of generations is not meant to be a time limit, but is meant to be contrasted with the second half of the statement that reminds us that God’s mercy is available to cancel out the punishment that sin has brought down on our heads. Jesus Christ was the remedy, the physical expression of God’s mercy and love in providing forgiveness for those who believe. He loved us, and we love Him because He loved us. And as an expression of our love we love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength as Jesus says in John 15:10 (NIV): “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love.” Make ME God, He tells us, not you.
The point here is that substituting God for a “knock-off” is sin, in fact it was part of the original sin committed by Adam and Eve that brought down the punishment of God on every successive generation.
Eve saw the fruit (Genesis 3:6). It looked good to her, better than obedience, and she thought it would be beneficial to her, more useful to her than God, so substituted the tangible for the intangible—the fruit for God’s voice. She settled for a “knock-off.”
This leads us to our second application here. We’ve looked at the danger of making a replica of God that doesn’t truly represent His perfection, His character. Now we look at:
2. NO SUBSTITUTIONS, PLEASE
Here we are referring to the things or people in our lives that become more important to us than God, things or people that take the Number One spot in our lives, or become Number One priorities in His place.
These are not representations of Him, but replacements for Him.
When we think of idols we often thing of figures made of stone, or wood, or gold. J. John suggests that some of the most powerful idols exist in the mind.
On the handout for this week’s study is a question (#1) that has to do with the following statements. A Christian would say:
· God gives purpose, meaning, and fulfillment to my life.
· God governs the way I act.
· God is the focal point around which my existence hangs.
· God is often in my thoughts, and I get enthusiastic about God.
· Thoughts of God comfort me when I am down.
· I read about God, I talk about God, I make friends with those who are also committed to God.
· I desire more of God.
Idolatry happens when you can put something else in the space occupied by the word God. You can put all kinds of things in that space. You can put money, career, holidays, family, sports, music, relationships, sex, fame, and a host of other things.
An idol is what you live for. If you live for your kids, they are your idols. If you live for your job, your job becomes your idol. If you live for your health, your body becomes your idol. J. John writes: “Idolatry occurs when we hold any value, idea, or activity higher than God.” (Ten: Laws of Love Set In Stone, page 189)
We need to understand that values, ideas, activities, relationships in themselves are not evil. All these things can be good things, and the Scriptures themselves tell us in places like James 1:17 that: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” However, even good things have the potential to become idols.
Look back at the story of the Golden Calf. What they may have meant to be as a harmless, innocent thing turned into an idol that took the place of God. We can do something similar to this in our churches. We take something outside of an unchangeable God and unchangeable truth and make it a god. I had a “wonderful” time with the leadership of one church I served in when I moved the pulpit and the communion table so that the kids could put on a musical program. Those pieces of furniture were “sacred” and were not to be moved. I moved them and they stayed moved, but not without some pain. Our traditions can become gods, our programs can become gods, our people can become gods (when we try to keep them happy at the expense of keeping them growing in God).
The subject of idols gets to be a very touchy one. How do you suggest to someone that a hobby, sport, or a relationship in his/her life has become an idol? Many people, to justify themselves will say, “Surely God isn’t threatened by my garden, my hockey game, my love for my family? Didn’t He give me all these things to enjoy?”
When we are told in Jesus’ summary statement of the first four commands that we are to, “love God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind,” what does that word “all” suggest? In the original the word “all” means exactly what we think it means: complete in extent, amount, time or degree; —all, altogether, every whit.
J. John equates this to the marriage relationship. “In marriage,” he writes, “there is no room for any other person, precisely because a marriage is totally based on a unique and exclusive relationship between two people. That exclusivity is at the very heart of what a marriage is all about. And our relationship with God is to be similar. Both are personal relationships that are bound by pledges of faithfulness and priority. In fact, the concept of a covenant, a mutual binding treaty of one party to another, lies at the heart of both relationships. As the husband and wife make promises exclusively to each other, so God and his people make similar promises: he to protect and bless us and we to trust and obey him. A key element of any covenant, ancient or modern, is its restrictive nature; it is only between the named parties. The exclusivity that is at the core of a marriage is also at the heart of our relationship to God.” (ibid, page 192-3)
To God, and it was something repeated over and over in the Old Testament, idolatry was adultery, the breaking of the marriage vows between Him and His people by being unfaithful to Him and “sleeping around” with others.
1 John 5:21 (NIV) gives us the apostle John’s words on the subject: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
The world presses us to conform to what it says is important. What does society, science, medicine, the media tell us is important? Therein lies a temptation we have to resist. Advertisers know that oft repeated images and phrases will eventually convince us that whatever they are selling we need to buy. We may give in because we hear the message so often we begin to believe it. We also may give in because it is simply too hard to swim against the current and we get tired. Why do I have to be the different one? The other danger is to condemn entirely the good things that God has given us and tear each one from our lives. Overwhelmed by the struggle to sort everything out we sometimes long to chuck it all to one side and live like hermits parked on a mountaintop staring at the heavens.
Tom Wright tells this story about the early Christians in Britain. He says that the first believers to arrive in Britain chose to build their places of worship on top of the sites the pagans had used for their worship. It wasn’t because there was something holy or special about those places. They simply wanted to say something about God by their actions—He’s the One and Only and none should be worshipped but Him. The lesson is that with the good things in our lives that have to potential to become idols, we need, not to run away from them, or condemn them, but place them under the lordship of God.
J. John suggests some things that our modern-day society worships that we need to look out for.
Our society worships sex. We’ll come back to this one when we get to the 7th commandment. But sex also has to do with idolatry. We can’t run away from it and not talk about it. We can’t condemn it because God meant for a man and a woman to marry and to enjoy an intimate relationship. But today’s society encourages lust in every form, sexual perversions, and relationships without the commitment of marriage, in defiance of God and as a replacement for an intimate relationship with God.
Our society worships the body. We spend billions of dollars getting skinny, staying young, and getting healthy. We worship youth and beauty. Getting healthy is not a bad thing since we should take care of what God has given to us, but it can be one of those good things that take over our lives and becomes an idol. Our spiritual beauty, our spiritual health, needs to be first.
Our society worships power. There is an old saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Power goes hand in hand with position, prestige, our 15 minutes of fame. Have you ever wondered why so many people have signed up for every conceivable kind of reality contest that can be invented? The money is part of it, but the power, the notoriety is another. Why do you care if your beard is better than everyone else’s? Why do you put your child on a show like Toddlers and Tiaras? You want the feeling of superiority over everyone else that comes with winning the competition—that’s power. That’s your god.
Our society worships in a very special temple. It’s called the shopping mall. We are a society that is driven to accumulate. There is nothing wrong with having things, but there is a test we need to take to make sure our “things” aren’t our gods. J. John writes: “Can you look around at all you have…and say, ‘Well, God, if you asked me to, I could give them up.’ If we can say that, we are on the right track. An even better practice is to get into the habit of giving things, even good things, away. Nothing insults idols quite so much as giving them away” (TEN, Laws of Love Set In Stone, page 200).
We need to remember that God doesn’t give us these commands for His sake, but for ours. God wants the best for us, and if we settle for “knock-offs” we never get the real deal. Why settle for Walmart when you can have Bijan (Located at 420 Rodeo Dr. in Beverly Hills sits The House Of Bijan boutique, the most expensive store in the world. After researching this "fact" it appears to remain unchallenged and accepted, apparently no other stores are vying for the title. From the outside the Bijan boutique is exquisite yet slightly uninviting. The names of some of Mr. Bijan's well-known clients are engraved on the front window of the boutique and an appointment is the only way to gain access into this exclusive world, where a pair of socks will cost you $50. A suit, $50,000. In 1981, Bijan created the first perfume for men, the 6 oz. bottle is now priced at $3,000. The Bijan perfume bottle is a featured exhibit at the Smithsonian! Mr. Bijan's exclusive designs now include suits, shirts, ties, shoes, scarves, jewelry, and watches, briefcases, luggage and, of course, fragrances.)
Idols lie. They are frauds. They promise us what they can never give us. God never lies and He keeps His promises. We choose the fake because we can shape it any way we want. God chooses His own shape, and we are the hole that was only meant for Him and for nothing and no one else.
And no substitutions, either.