The Essence of Idolatry and the Nature of the Almighty

James C. Guy


The word "idolatry" most often triggers pictures in the mind of stone or wooden statues sitting on the mantle, or of large statues displayed in the squares of cities in the Eastern Hemisphere. But, what exactly is an idol? Funk & Wagnall's dictionary defines it as: (1) An image representing a god and worshiped as divine; (2) In the Christian and Jewish religions, a false god; object of heathen worship; (3) One who is loved or admired to an excessive degree. Those are interesting definitions. We may ask, "Why does an idol represent a false god only in the Christian and Jewish religions? What is a false god? And, how much love or admiration is an excessive degree when it comes to God?" What we really need to ask is, "What does idolatry mean to God?"


Idolatry is putting any god before Jehovah. From the very beginning of God's written law, He commanded, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). He did not mean we could worship other gods as long as we worshiped Him more than the others. Jesus reminds us, "No one can serve two masters…" (Matthew 6:24). Jehovah God is exclusively God, and there are therefore no other gods to be worshiped. As Paul explained in I Corinthians 8:4, "…we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one." To worship any god but Jehovah God alone is idolatry.


Idolatry is any image representing another god. Most God-fearing people would not think of buying or creating an image and worshiping it as a god. However, we must be careful not to unknowingly do essentially the same thing with some of the modern images we hold. When God explained to Israel what they were forbidden to do in the second of the 10 commandments, He said, "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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…" (Exodus 20:4-5). Notice, He said not to make an image or likeness of anything in heaven, earth, or under the earth. Does that include the angel figurines, or the ceramic puppy dogs, dolphins, or other animals that many have in their homes? Does it include the various images of objects hanging from the rear-view mirror in the car? If we were to include those things in the definition of "idol" we would have to include photos and paintings of most anything as well. But, the point of the command is obvious that the things God is speaking of concern those that are made to represent any false god or object that is worshiped. As He says, "For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God."


Yet, there are some who do look for special favors from images that are seen to represent certain elements of deity, or of creatures or objects that supposedly represent some sort of divine care. For example, there may be nothing wrong with having a ceramic figurine of what some picture an angel may look like. Yet, to look to that figure of an angel and believe that somehow it provides special protection for the household, or to wear a "guardian angel" on the shoulder with the belief that it will invoke some angelic being to watch over the person would indeed be akin to an idol. So, we must be careful not to look to such objects and figures for any other purpose than the beauty, decoration, or perhaps personal identity they provide. To do otherwise would be idolatry.



Idolatry is any image used to represent the true God. There are perhaps some who would quickly condemn the worship of any idol representing a false god. Yet, many of those same, well-meaning people may be practicing idolatry in their sincere efforts to better worship the true God. Again, a piece of cross jewelry, or a picture of what some may think Jesus may have looked like hanging on the wall are not necessarily wrong in and of themselves. But, for some, these items are used as a physical representations of God. When a person believes they see some divine power and protection in wearing or displaying such items, or in kissing the feet of some statue of "Jesus," they are looking to some physical representation of God as an object of worship.


Such was the sin of the children of Israel, even while Moses was receiving the law. In Exodus 32, the people had unfortunately become accustomed to seeing Moses something as a "representation" of God's presence on their behalf. When Moses did not return from the mountain as quickly as they thought he should, they petitioned Aaron to "…make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him'' (verse 1). They had not learned to see God for who He really was by faith, but rather thought they had to see Him though some physical representation. Aaron obliges them by creating a golden calf and they believed that "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt'' (verse 4)! It was not that they no longer worshiped the God that had brought them out of Egypt; they simply thought they created some new way of representing Him. In fact, Aaron proclaimed the next day as a "feast to the Lord," apparently referring to the true God.


The problem was, God cannot be represented by anything of the Earth, the heavens, nor anywhere else. That is the reason God described Himself simply as "I am" to the children of Israel (Exodus 3:14). It is why Paul told the people gathered in Athens, "…we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising" (Acts 17:29). God is so great, and so awesome, that there is nothing anywhere that can compare to Him, nor in any way represent Him. The only representation man can make of Him is in their lives lived in service to Him. Even that is a feeble attempt, and does not fully represent Him. Nothing but God Himself can represent Him, but we can be His representatives to the world. To attempt to represent God with anything but Himself would be idolatry.


Finally, Idolatry is also putting anything before God. This does not just include some image of a false god, but anything that becomes more important in our lives than He is to us. Jesus said, "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:37-19). He does not teach us that we are not to love our parents, or our children. In fact, He teaches we must love them (see Ephesians chapter 5 and 6). Rather, He teaches that we must not love even those we are supposed to love more than we love God. That means we are not to place them at a higher status, nor of higher importance in our allegiance. When we put family, friends, jobs, activities, entertainment, or anything else above God, we practice idolatry. That does not mean we cannot be involved in these things, but it means that in whatever ways we are involved in them, it must be with God at the forefront. Colossians 3:17 reminds us, "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." 'Whatever' leaves nothing out. Whatever we do is to be done in the name of the Lord. That is what letting Jesus be the "Lord of our lives" is all about. He is worthy of our primary allegiance, and is a jealous God because He is the one and only true God. We must learn to think of Him in His greatness in all we do. As A.W. Tozer wrote, "The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him." [1] Anything we think, do, say, build, or worship that is not God in His very essence, is unworthy of Him. Anything that is unworthy of Him is an idol. Any idol used to represent or replace God is idolatry.



[1] A.W. Tozer. (1961). The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: Harper & Brothers, p. 11.



2005 © Copyright James C. Guy – All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce in church bulletins, for Bible class purposes, and other similar non-profit purposes. Feel free to contact the author for approval.

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