Today we will be looking at the topic of the Kingdom, and how the Kingdom of God should not have any type of iconography or attempt to represent God through any physical location or facility. All of these detract from the simple essence of who he is in Spirit and truth. Idolatry is the most represented affront to the majesty of God and his Kingdom throughout the entire Bible.
Right after God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and told them he wanted them to be representatives of his kingdom as priests, he then gave them the Ten Commandments. One of the primary commandments was against idolatry.
Exodus 20:4-5 – “You shall not make for yourselves an idol, nor any image of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them…”
Yeshua confirmed that God abhors idolatry, and further revealed how God desires spiritual worship based on the truth, not some physical representation of him.
John 4:23-24 – “But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
If I were to paraphrase these two passages, it might sound something like this:
Have nothing to do with tangible representations of any god, including the one true God. Worship the Father (Yahweh) alone, and in spirit and in truth only.
For whatever reason, humans love icons and iconography. We seek to identify everything with a symbolic representation of some sort, whether it is a brand logo, an app, or a digital navigation menu. In honesty, I must admit there is a certain logic to this mode of communication: it acts as a type of shorthand for a larger idea or concept that can be communicated quickly and simply.
In a similar way, throughout history civilizations have represented their concepts of their gods with a plethora of iconic representation, from statues to intricate carvings of various symbols to grandiose temples. The idolatry of the Bible, however, is generally concerned with the statues and carvings of the various gods that continually led Israel away from the one true God, Yahweh. Baal and Ashtoreth were two of the most notable “local” gods in the land of Canaan which threatened to lure Israel away from Yahweh.
Judges 3:7 – “The Israelites did what was evil in Yahweh’s sight; they forgot Yahweh their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs.”
Judges 10:6 – “Then the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh. They worshiped the Baals and the Ashtoreths, the gods of Aram, Sidon, and Moab, and the gods of the Ammonites and the Philistines. They abandoned Yahweh and did not worship him.”
The cultural power of these gods was so strong within the land of Canaan that the Israelites suffered with them throughout their history, in spite of dramatic showdowns with the likes of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
1 Kings 18:17-19 – “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one ruining Israel? ” He replied, “I have not ruined Israel, but you and your father’s family have, because you have abandoned Yahweh’s commands and followed the Baals. “Now summon all Israel to meet me at Mount Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
After watching the false prophets attempt to provoke their gods to manifest themselves at their offering altars, God reveals himself at the simple invocation of Elijah to make himself known.
1 Kings 18:37-40 – “Answer me, Yahweh! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Yahweh, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then Yahweh’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell facedown and said, “Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God! ” Then Elijah ordered them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let even one of them escape.” So they seized them, and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
The reason that God had even brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan in the first place was so that they would eradicate these false representations and the wicked practices, such as child sacrifice, that went along with them.
Deuteronomy 9:4-5 – “When Yahweh your God drives them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘Yahweh brought me in to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ Instead, Yahweh will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness. “You are not going to take possession of their land because of your righteousness or your integrity. Instead, Yahweh your God will drive out these nations before you because of their wickedness…”
This is how strongly God is opposed to false gods and the idolatrous worship that goes along with them.
Sometimes, during periods of reform and return to the worship of the one true God, the Israelite tribes were successful in removing the idols and false worship of the nations around them.
1 Samuel 7:4 – “So the Israelites removed the Baals and the Ashtoreths and only worshiped Yahweh.”
1 Samuel 12:10 – “Then they cried out to Yahweh and said, ‘We have sinned, for we abandoned Yahweh and worshiped the Baals and the Ashtoreths. Now rescue us from the power of our enemies, and we will serve you.’
However, there are indications that even when the Israelites were doing what they were supposed to do in removing the false gods and idols, in typical fashion, they were still missing the true meaning of having Yahweh as their God, since they continually desired him to simply save them from the power of the their enemies, but not from the power of their own sinfulness.
Ultimately, the Kingdom of God was not to be just about an idyllic kingdom to be protected from its enemies, but to be a kingdom made up of individuals who were to practice “righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy Spirit,” (Romans 14:17).
Additionally, the idolatry of Israel was not always focused on other gods, but on the one true God, just through some form of statue or representation of their own making.
Consider the golden calf incident. Most people think that the golden calf was a foreign god that the Israelites were worshiping, however, they made the golden calf in honor of Yahweh God and instituted a festival to him! The Israelites created it as a representation of the God who had brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 32:4), and also as a representation of the God who would go before them and conquer. They bowed down to it and danced around it.
Exodus 32:4-5 – “He [Aaron] took the gold from them, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, this is your god, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! ” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it and made an announcement: “There will be a festival to Yahweh tomorrow.”
This shamed the magnificence of the one true God and Moses rightly and immediately destroyed it.
Consider the bronze snake that Moses had made in obedience to Yahweh’s command for healing of the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21).
Numbers 21:6-9 – Then Yahweh sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died. The people then came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you. Intercede with the LORD so that he will take the snakes away from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.” So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.”
When Hezekiah became king, he ended up having to destroy it because it had become an object of worship in and of itself (2 Kings 18:4)
Consider the ephod or breastplate that Gideon made to represent the victories of the Israelites over the Midianites (Judges 8:22-27).
Judges 8:22, 24-27 – Then the Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you as well as your sons and your grandsons, for you delivered us from the power of Midian.” … Then he said to them, “Let me make a request of you: Everyone give me an earring from his plunder.” Now the enemy had gold earrings because they were Ishmaelites. They said, “We agree to give them.” So they spread out a cloak, and everyone threw an earring from his plunder on it. The weight of the gold earrings he requested was forty-three pounds of gold, in addition to the crescent ornaments and ear pendants, the purple garments on the kings of Midian, and the chains on the necks of their camels. Gideon made an ephod from all this and put it in Ophrah, his hometown. Then all Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his household.”
While Gideon’s intent was to honor God, it became an object of worship itself and created corruption among the Israelites.
All of this is a form of syncretism, a blending of what is true about God with the falsehood of idolatry and foreign culture. This is the most dangerous type of idolatry because those who are engaged in it believe they are truly worshiping the one true God through it, yet they are demeaning everything he stands for.
To this day, iconic representation can be found throughout the world, some even becoming popular tourist destinations due to their magnificence.
As I have been reviewing current popular religious destinations, I have been a little shocked to find that many of the most well-attended religious sites are actually based on Christian lore, such as Fatima in Portugal where there were alleged visions of Mary, Lourdes in France, or any of the Roman Catholic sites within Rome. These locations are filled with idolatry of all sorts: images, statues, and various representations of Mary and other religious saints and figures.
There are also magnificent and extravagant temples throughout India and Asian countries with representations of various gods and goddesses and many well-meaning religious traditions.
However, in the Bible God warns us that although this may be typical and commonplace among our various cultures and religions, we are not to identify him in this sort of way. He is to be worshiped in spirit and truth only, not by some sort of symbolic representation. The wisdom in this instruction is that he knows that the thing that is created to represent him can then replace him in the minds of the worshipers.
Idols of other gods are an offense to him, because there are no other gods that have created all things, and ascribing power to something other than him is an insult to his sovereignty over his Creation.
Idols meant to represent him or aspects of his power are also offensive to him, because no one thing can represent his majesty and glory in all of Creation. Ultimately, as we have seen, he knows that the representative thing becomes the object of worship. Any created thing is not a thing to be worshiped, even if we believe it is representing the one true God. No one thing in all of Creation can represent him, and is therefore offensive to him.
What if I was to create an icon of my wife, and in order to honor her, I burnt incense to that statue every day, or got down on my knees and professed my love for her to the image? I don’t need an iconic representation of my wife to honor her; I just need to demonstrate my love to her every day in how I live my life by respecting her and caring for her.
In the same way, God doesn’t want to be worshiped through some shallow representation of a portion of his being; he wants to be recognized for the beneficent Creator that he is in all of his qualities and honored from the heart. Similar to the simplicity and sincerity that I would show my wife, God expects these plain and humble actions in my worship of him.
Additionally, from a practical standpoint, I am extremely saddened by the idolatry present throughout the world for another significant reason: the sheer waste of resources that could be used to help people in real need.
If we were to total all of the money and resources that are sacrificed in the worship of these false idols and their traditions, I am convinced that hunger and poverty throughout the world could be eradicated many times over. I am convinced that resources spent on religious idolatrous enterprises in every culture, including Christianity, are consuming what is available for the ever-growing population of humanity.
Think of the largest religious festivals and the resources they consume: Hajj (Islam); Chinese New Year; Diwali (Hindu); Ramadan (Islam); Setsubun (Shinto); Krishna Janmashtami (Hindu); Navarati (Hindu). These all, while time-honored examples within each of these cultures, are from the biblical perspective considered idolatrous festivities to the gods of those religions.
Lest anyone think that we in American Christian culture are any less guilty of idolatry, simply consider the resources allotted to Easter, Halloween and most significantly, Christmas. According to statista.com, the financial value spent at Christmas is 843 BILLION dollars, and that is in the US alone! Easter has been in the 18 billion-dollar range, and Halloween has gone from 3 billion to 10 billion over the last 15 years. That totals 871 billion dollars spent annually on these idolatrous festivals in the US alone.
Now, a quick search of world-wide poverty initiatives brought me to borenproject.org, where they quote a Columbia University professor’s estimate of ending world poverty:
“In his book End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, provides one answer to the question “how much does it cost to end poverty?” He argues that poverty could be eliminated by the year 2025 thanks to “well-placed development aids”. Investment in local farms to boost capital and productivity, education for both children and adults, enhancing access to health services and leveraging renewable energy resources are the best ways to end poverty.
“So, how much does it cost to end poverty? Sachs, as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty, stated that the cost to end poverty is $175 billion per year for 20 years.”
Looking at only one year’s spend on religious idolatry, and in only the United States, this equals less than one-fourth of the combined financial impact of Easter, Halloween and Christmas. Now, if we were to estimate the costs of these other global religious festivities and their idolatrous practices, it is clear that the ability to raise up the quality of living and eradicate poverty around the entire world currently exists, if only we could have our eyes opened to the offerings still being made to idolatrous practices around the world.
This is why it is so important for people everywhere to understand the true nature of the Kingdom of God, and to recognize the simple and humble service he expects of his people, not extravagant displays like the pagans!
I believe it is clear we should also re-think some of our own practices in our believing congregations in light of this focus on idolatry. Beyond the seasonal holidays, there are plenty of idolatrous offerings occurring right here in American congregations, as well. How many times have people been admonished to “give sacrificially” to a building fund or to reach some financial goal for the congregation’s sound system or some other facility related function? We spend literally billions on parking lots, building improvements and maintenance, media systems and staffing to manage all of these facilities which remain mostly unused for most of any given week. These are real funds that could be better spent helping those in need while the congregation finds humbler means of gathering once or twice a week.
If this kind of commentary sounds jaded, then so be it. When I served as an intern pastor and also an elder over a number of years in small, local congregations, the amount of ministry time and resources wasted on building campaigns and maintenance was staggering to me. These tax-exempt corporations we have set up as ministry centers suffer from the same myopic budgeting that many secular businesses do. In essence, the facilities themselves have become idols for these congregations, idols that need constant attention and exorbitant resources. Instead, our facilities can be humble places of week-long ministry rather than just fancy audience arenas for a single isolated time each week.
I have heard time and time again that the description of an idol is simply “anything that comes between you and God.” However, from a biblical perspective, that is not really accurate at all. According to the Bible, an idol is an image or practice of some sort to which the powers of God or a god are ascribed, and therefore honor and sacrifice should be paid to it. It may be a figure, an institution or an ancient tradition. Idolatry of this sort in today’s day and age looks like this:
Candles, financial gifts, or food that is offered to statues of gods or supposed saints.
Costs to travel to religious sites for idolatrous religious festivals.
Thinking that by giving to the church building program or giving sacrificially to rescue the church budget is giving to God.
The financial debt and ruin incurred at Saturnalia in an effort to “decorate for the holidays” and to ensure no family’s “Christmas” gifts were overlooked.
These are examples of what modern idolatry looks like. Idols are real things created by people to somehow substitute or represent the one true God and their service to him, not just emotions or feelings that come between us and God. Emotional distractions are all legitimate ways we can be swayed away from God as well, don’t get me wrong. However, true idolatry is the participation in a physical event or honoring of traditional, physical icons in lieu of worshiping the one true God in spirit and in truth.
Yahweh, the God of the Bible, sets himself apart from all other gods by demanding we stop trying to represent him or his kingdom symbolically, whether through some type of iconography, grand facility, or through wasted resources on idolatrous traditions and practices. We can’t represent him fairly in those instances and, even if it is attempted, whatever we make becomes an object of corruption.
There are quite literally thousands of faith traditions throughout the world, even in regards to the God of the Bible. Whatever our personal faith tradition, we must find ways to combat the idolatry that is present through iconography, statues, and symbolic representation.
God simply desires our sincere honoring of him every day by the outworking of our practical faith among the rest of his Creation. This is what living in and for his kingdom should be.
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