What Is Idolatry?
In our circles, Pastor John, we hear a lot about idols. So what is an idol? Why are they dangerous? And what does an idol look like in today’s world?
Maybe the best way to get at this instead of trying to reach out to the whole Bible and pull all the pieces together — which is not a bad thing to do — let’s just go to one verse, one passage of Scripture, because I think in this verse, in Colossians 3:5–6, the answers to all three questions are there. What is an idol? Why is it dangerous? What do they look like today? So here is the verse: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” (Colossians 3:5–6)
So this is the answer to the question “Why are idols dangerous?” — namely, the wrath of God is coming upon idolatry. Nothing is more dangerous than the wrath of an omnipotent, all-righteous God. And Paul says the wrath of God is coming on idolatry. Now why would that be? Listen to Exodus 20: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness or 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 or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:4–5) The wrath of God comes on the idolater because God is jealous. There is a righteous and holy jealousy and an unrighteous and weak and insecure jealousy. And God’s jealousy is not only righteous — that is, he deserves our deepest and strongest affections and admiration — but it is loving.
“God is jealous that he be honored by being treasured, and he is jealous that we be satisfied by treasuring him.”
It is a loving jealousy, because we were made to find our greatest joy when he is our greatest treasure. He is jealous that he be honored by being treasured, and he is jealous that we be satisfied by treasuring him. So he is jealous in a loving way and he is jealous in a righteous way. And if we find God to be so boring or so negligible that we must put other things in his place that really satisfy us more than he does, then we not only offend him, but we also destroy ourselves. Those two things make God angry. He doesn’t want to be offended and he doesn’t want us to destroy ourselves. Idolatry contradicts both of those things and so his wrath comes upon the idolater. So that is the answer to the first question: Why it is so dangerous?
The other two questions can be taken together, I think, something like this: What is an idol and what does it look like today?
First in the Heart
Paul says, “Covetousness, which is idolatry.” So what idolatry looks like today is the activity of the human heart. This is not a deed of the body. That follows — a fruit on a branch. It starts in the heart: craving, wanting, enjoying, being satisfied by anything that you treasure more than God. That is an idol. Paul calls this covetousness — a disordered love or desire, loving more than God what ought to be loved less than God and only for the sake of God. But covetousness is the condition that this disordered heart is in, an act of loving too much what ought to be loved less. And that is why the wrath of God is coming. That is what idolatry looks like today. And it is everywhere in our culture.
“Idolatry starts in the heart: craving, wanting, enjoying, being satisfied by anything that you treasure more than God.”
So finally: What is an idol? Well, it is the thing. It is the thing loved or the person loved more than God, wanted more than God, desired more than God, treasured more than God, enjoyed more than God. It could be a girlfriend. It could be good grades. It could be the approval of other people. It could be success in business. It could be sexual stimulation. It could be a hobby or a musical group that you are following or a sport or your immaculate yard. I was looking for some yard stuff the other day and I clicked on a video ad for a yard service and three people came on and all of them made the point that this yard service enabled them to brag that they had the best yard in the neighborhood. I thought: What a motivation! I want to be number one in green grass! So that could be an idol. Or your own looks could be an idol. It could be anything.
So Paul puts it like this in Romans 1:25: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature” — anything that is created — “rather than the Creator.” But there is no wrath for the children of God. And why is that? Because Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 1: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)
So when we turn to Christ from idols we escape the wrath of God because he is for us. God is for us in Christ on the cross.