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What is Idolatry?

Idolatry is a really big deal in the Bible. It comes up over and over again as the most basic of sins, both for Old Testament Israel and New Testament Christians. Both the presence and damage of idolatry is obvious in much of the Old Testament, but its presence in the New Testament is not as obvious. However, idolatry is no less a foundational sin in the New Testament.

We might be tempted to think that idolatry is for ancients, or pagans – not something that we have to be concerned about. But remember how the Apostle John concluded his first letter: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21). John hadn’t mentioned idols in the rest of the book, but these are the words he chose to conclude the book. Why did John warn Christians about idols?

Earlier in 1 John, the Apostle warned against idolatry using different words:

"Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever." 1 John 2:15-16

Idolatry is often behind the words “love,” desire” and “passion” in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul called greed, or covetousness, idolatry (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5). Paul also warned us against various forms of idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10, pointing to the experiences of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness as a warning.

Simply put, an idol is anything that exists in creation – physical or imagined – that we put in the place of God or above God. It might be money, another person, our work, our perfectly imagined future or any number of things.

Idolatry is always a reflection of unbelief. If we believed God, if we knew God, we wouldn’t turn from him to pathetic substitutes. If we walked by faith, we wouldn’t turn to alternative gods that will always fail us. Consider the warning in Hebrews 3:12: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. “

Practicing idolatry is letting our hearts be more attached to any created thing rather than the Creator. The failure to glorify God and give him thanks (Romans 1:21) is the fruit of this fundamental sin.

Idolatry begins with our hearts. It is not so much about the object of our affection, but that this object of our affection is a competitor or a replacement for God in our lives.

Evil things can be idols – like the altar to Chemosh or Molech, or pornography or drug addiction.

However, a subtle danger of idolatry is that it may also be something that is good in and of itself. How can a good thing become an idol? If it becomes an “instead of” God – a substitute saviour. When we get things out of proportion to God, then that created thing will become an idol.

Good, religious people can be just as guilty of idolatry as Solomon was. It might be invisible to others – at least for a time – but idolatry is a destructive, foolish sin.

Please look for the next segment of this article tomorrow