When the apostle Paul walked through the streets of Athens, the Bible records, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16b; ESV).” Athens, we are told, had so many shrines to various spirits, demons, and gods that there was quite literally on idol on every street corner. Athens was exceptional in its demonstrative devotion to idols, but it was scarcely alone. The ancient world was full of idols.
When God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments, the first two commands were directly applicable to every form of idolatry. God told Moses, “You shall have no other gods,” and “You shall not make any carven images,” meaning carven images such as one might pray to or worship (cf. Exodus 20:3-5). Relatedly, God also forbade witchcraft, spiritism and any other such device wherein one might seek for aid or guidance from any power apart from Himself (cf. Leviticus 19:31, etc.). In all things God wanted His people to trust and worship Him alone.
Yet even ancient Israel became a land full of idols. There were the golden calves, which the people claimed as their savior from Egypt (cf. Exodus 32:4). There were the various Baals, which the people honored and worshiped. There were the Asherah poles, at which the people gathered to worship via acts of prostitution and fornication. There was Molech, before which the people killed their own children, sacrificing them alive as burnt offerings. There were idols of gold and silver, idols representing the various stars, idols of the sun and moon. Thus, it was not pagan lands of which Isaiah would lament, “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made (Isaiah 2:8; ESV;” it was Israel itself.
Oft times, Israel tried to have it both ways, worshipping both God and Baal at the same time. But as God had forbade the worship of any but Him, all such attempts were a rejection of both He and His word.
We might also note, in passing, that though those who worshipped idols were condemned by God, it must be admitted that they were very religious people. The Israelites, thought they rejected God, did not reject religion. Rather their idol worship warped their religion, making it spiritually worthless. Likewise, the Athenians who so vexed Paul were, he conceded, very devout and religious in their devotion to their demons (cf. Acts 17:22).
Is the world today any less filled with idols? We may not have the same sorts of shrines as filled ancient Athens, but what other shrines do we erect in our lives?
Idols can take many shapes and forms. Whenever we elevate a thing to the level of God, or even above God, in importance in our lives, we have made an idol of it. When we seek for security, safety or salvation from that which is not God, we are chasing after an idol. When we sacrifice and prostrate ourselves in pursuit of a certain goal, we have made an idol.
Some people make an idol out of wealth and material possessions, which is why God warns His children to “put to death… covetousness, which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).” Some people make an idol out of their careers and jobs. Some make an idol out of sports. Others out of their friends and families. Consider just as an exercise, the question as to the difference between a woman who sacrifices her baby to Molech upon an altar in the hope of gaining wealth, and a woman sacrificing her baby to abortion, in the hope of keeping her career or education. Likewise, what is the difference between a man who visits a prostitute before an Asherah pole, in pursuit of pleasure, and one who does the same in a seedy hotel. The practices are the same, only the names and the culture has changed.
Some might protest that they cannot be worshipping idols, because they are very religious, or because they also worship God. But ancient Israel was very religious. Ancient Israel also sought to worship God. Yet, ancient Israel was also full of idols. As Jesus said, we cannot serve both God and Money. God is a jealous God and we can’t have any idols in our lives if we seek to please Him (cf. Exodus 20:5).
Those who want to please God need to heed His words and “flee idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:14)!”
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.