by Pastor Keith Graham
Please read the Scripture passage referenced above. Reading complementary passages Isaiah 44:9-23 and Colossians 2:8-23 will be very helpful. After reading these passages, keep your Bible handy as you continue. Thank you!
The greatest burden of the Old Covenant prophets, the essence of the message they preached again and again, was to call the people of God away from the Ashtoreths, from the Baals - that is, from gods of the nations. God's people were not to imitate the idolatrous ways of their neighbors. "Worship the true and living God, and Him alone", the mighty prophetic voices called to Israel, over and over.
As we read in Isaiah 44:9-23 and elsewhere in God's Word the Holy Bible, ancient idolaters in Canaan made "gods" for themselves out of wood, stone, and metal. Such hideous objects of worship - images mixing animal and human faces and bodies, shrines to ancestors, and the like still exist. However, they are absent from the routine lives of professing Christians. Does this mean that IDOLATRY is a dead issue for God's people of today? Did our need for a trumpet call to "worship the true and living God, and Him alone" end with the Old Covenant?
The apostle Peter, in second epistle (1:12-15; 3:1,2) writes that he desires to stir up his readers by way of a reminder. He writes that it is good for them to be so reminded of what he is telling them, though they already know it, and have been established in the Truth. He writes that he will be diligent to make sure that they will be able to continue to recall what he writes, after the end of his earthly ministry. Even so, I would remind you, Christian reader established in the Truth, and impress upon you the Bible's answer to the question, "is idolatry a dead issue"?
THAT ANSWER IS A RESOUNDING NO! IDOLATRY IS "ALIVE AND WELL"!
In the era of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah, even during the periods of greatest spiritual awakening, the high places where the people worshiped as they saw fit (idolatrously) were not removed. Sadly, so it is today. Even among Christians where the light of the Gospel burns brightly, there are "high places of the heart".
Idolatry is not ONLY an Old Testament problem, or a problem among peoples upon whom the light of glorious Gospel of Christ has yet to shine!
Idolatry is a fundamental human sin problem, and as Christians we need to examine our desperately wicked hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) in light of God's Word in order to uncover this sin, confess it, and repent of it. Let us turn more explicitly to our passage from the prophet Ezekiel (14:1-11), and prayerfully ask God to use His words spoken through the prophet to perform a "spiritual cardiogram" on us, for His glory and our good.
The setting for Ezekiel's words is the Babylonian captivity, in the sixth century before Christ. Ezekiel the priest was among the captives. Certain elders of Israel had come to Ezekiel, because Ezekiel's prophetic ministry was recognized by them. Yet, their hearts were not right with the God Whom Ezekiel served, the true God, the God of Israel. Though idolatry was a major factor in bringing about their captivity, these men had not forsaken it. They had set up idols in their hearts.
There is an old cigarette commercial I remember. It sought to create the impression that lighting up a Salem instantly gave a smoker the feeling of being in a fresh, fragrant, rural place - regardless of where the smoker really was. The accompanying slogan was, You can take Salem out of the country, but you can't take the country out of Salem.
You can take sinful hearts out of "Idol-Land", but you can't take Idol-Land out of sinful hearts!
Through Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit is showing us - now, in the closing years of the twenty-sixth century since Ezekiel's - that idolatry is at its root an inward, spiritual matter, not an outward matter of time or location. In John 4, the apostle records the words of the Lord Jesus to the woman at the well: "Not in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father...those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in Truth".
Only God saw the elders' heart idols. Ezekiel could not see them, but needed the mighty aid of Divine revelation. Only God sees the idols of our hearts now. Our neighbor might be deceived or ignorant. The Word of God reveals the idols of the heart, as that Word revealed them to Ezekiel.
For the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces to the division of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the HEART. (Hebrews 4:12)
You may imagine that you are free of idolatry. The Word of God will show you otherwise. Notice how God identifies the elders' heart idols as "what causes them to stumble". When we are walking in the way of obedience, loving God and our neighbor, an idol of the heart is anything that causes us to trip up as we walk the narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
Paul was zealous for the Corinthians, lest they be led away from the simplicty of their devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3). An idol is anything that takes us off that single minded devotion, causing us to "sideline" God Himself.
The apostle identifies idolatry with covetousness (GREED) in Ephesians 5:5. Worshiping the "almighty dollar", falling down to worship before the god MATERIALISM, giving one's utter devotion to an overly beloved boat, or business, or bank account is blatant idolatry! But there are others - sometimes subtle, and common to man:
One can make another person into a god, and the relationship with that one the controlling issue of his or her life. Young people and others who are taken with the idea of finding that elusive substance ROMANCE are very susceptible to this. Does any one other than God possess the primary and deepest allegiance of your soul, the first-fruits of your love?
The "work-a-holic", at whom the world gazes with a benign frown at worst, may be a man who has made his JOB - his vocation - into an invisible, heart-dwelling deity. He professes self-sacrifice for his family's sake, but in reality his family, friends, and the true God he claims to worship are only secondary to his real love; his loved ones are sacrificed on its altar.
THEOLOGY itself and what might be termed "CHURCHIANITY" can become stumbling blocks in our hearts, imitations of the genuine religion of faith. Please turn to and read Ezekiel 33:31,32. "Translating" what we find there into today's terms, we think of those who come to church and hear, but don't do what is proclaimed to them with Divine authority. For the inward reality of devotion to God, they have substituted the external aspects of His worship, and in place of the true knowledge of God, the have accepted a lifeless acquaintance with theological "facts". They have a form of godliness, but deny the power of it (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:1-5)
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 19th century London, England's "prince of preachers", remarked to the effect that when the Truth doesn't enter the heart to change us, to nourish us spiritually, it is like merely holding a piece of bread in the hand without eating it, so that the body can digest and use it.
One more example of a heart idol, an inward abomination that causes one to stumble in the way: SELF. And in the final analysis, all idols are really projections of SELF, are they not? After all, Egypt's Isis and Osiris, Canaan's Baals, the southern Mediterranean's Athena, et. al. have no ultimate reality, do they? They are inventions of ancient human hearts! Even so, the modern heart idol has no real existence. They are only extensions of the human imagination.
A seminary professor of mine who is now with the Lord, Dr. Robert Knight Rudolph, shared a great illustration of this with his students. He said that the business of inventing gods for ourselves is like a fireworks show. People set off the fireworks on earth, watch them explode in the sky with their fleeting beauty, and then proclaim, "what marvelous things Heaven sends us!"
"Heaven" didn't sent the fireworks at all! Those gunpowder filled little projectiles are only pieces of paper and plastic, packed with volatile dust, originating on the very ground to which they quickly return as useless ashes. The "little tin gods" (as singer Don Henley might put it) we forge are nothing like the eternal, true and living God of Heaven, are they?
Who is the person, or what is the thing that most occupies your thoughts? What do you daydream about? What fills your vision, and puts a spring in your step? What provides you with a purpose for living? In what do you believe your ultimate happiness lies?
Little slices of life can help us diagnose ourselves on this. If you are with the Lord in His Word and prayer, and the telephone rings, does the phone ALWAYS win the day? (Now this is not to condemn every such situation). When you arose this morning, was it with happy anticipation that you prepared for church - the beginning high point of the week, the time to gather with God's people to worship Him? Or were hoping the preacher would have a nice short sermon, and you could get out of there as soon as possible, to go do your own thing?
The one who denies that idolatry has not often crept into his heart, and that this despicable sin is continually seeking a high place there, has not yet learned his heart, or the depth and breadth of God's gracious commandment for our good, to love Him supremely (Exodus 20:3, Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37, 1 John 5:3).
The cure, as we see in verse 6 of our text, is REPENTANCE.
REPENTANCE is God's remedy for idolatry and for all sin. To repent means to "do an about face" from sin, to radically change one's mind about it, to set in place and proceed in a completely different course.
Crafty Mankind has many alternates for repentance. Among our rationalizations is that of EXCUSING sin. "This isn't idolatry, I'm just deeply in love with this person whom I must have at all costs". CUTTING BACK on sin doesn't cut it, either. Outward easings off can cloak a heart ravenous for sin. Another subterfuge is MINIMIZING. "Yes, I went deeply into debt to get this showy furniture, but it's not that bad! It's not like I'm offering lotus flowers to a big Buddha in my living room, or something!" Finally, DEFERRING repentance to a future day that never came has been the ruin of many a soul.
These substitutes for repentance are all like taking Tylenol for a tumor that must be cut out...or perhaps I should say shot with a laser, to bring the illustration up to speed with certain circles of medical practice.
Repentance is not just the action of a moment, it is a constant way of life, like faith. Faith and repentance are like the two sides of a coin. My wife, an allergy sufferer, is always after me (gently and meekly) to dust our bedroom. Sin, like dust, is always trying to settle down on the soul. By His Word, the Holy Spirit continually urges us to repentance - the habitual shaking things up to dislodge it. Repentance is like the plow that breaks up the hardened ground in our hearts.
I now purpose to share with you some powerful motives to examine ourselves unto fruitful repentance -
1. Looking again at our text, we find our first such motive in God's dreadful answer to people and prophet, verses 7 - 9.
One of the eeriest scenes in the gospels is Christ before the judgment seat of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Christ's answer to all the accusations made against Him there by the chief priests is: silence, at which Pilate is amazed. (Cf. Mark 15:3ff)
In other places in the gospels, the Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, responded to inquirers as He saw fit; not to satisfy human curiosity, but according to His own perfect wisdom. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?", He was asked. "Bring me a denarius", He replied. "Whose inscription is this?" (Cf. Luke 20:21ff)
God's answer to heart idolaters is this: an answer that is silent in word, but thunderous in judgment! Yes, to people AND prophet, God gives His own answer. An inquirer who will not put away his heart idols, and yet comes to God for answers, God will make a sign and a proverb, and cut him off from His people. Moreover, God will destroy any deceived prophet who spoke to them.
Do you know what is meant by "make him a sign and a proverb"? It means to make him one of whom people say, "That's similar to what happened to so-and-so", or, "If you're not careful, you'll wind up like you-know-who!" Think of an example from your own life, and insert the appropriate name. That name, the one behind it, has been made a sign and a proverb to you.
Several years ago, attorney N. Graves Thomas, described as a maverick and a firebrand by colleagues, earned his living defending murderers of police officers as well as alleged drug smugglers and mobsters in the state of Louisiana. Apparently, Mr. Thomas thought God was oblivous to his activities. One day, aboard his new pleasure boat during a thunderstorm, Thomas raised his hands and proclaimed heavenward, "Here I am." Moments later a lightning bolt struck him dead, witnesses said. (Those reading this sermon on the Internet can click here to read a United Press International report on this incident.)
How fearful! Mr. Thomas became a sign and a proverb to those who heard! And so our first motive unto fruitful repentance is that FEAR of the Lord which those who disobey Him should have! To be sure, "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18), and those with whom God is pleased need not be afraid of Him. But hear what Jesus said to the multitudes who mobbed together to hear a word from the great prophet Who had arisen out of Galilee -
"And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you Whom to fear: fear the One Who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!" (Luke 12:4)
Our Creator the Lord God demands full and absolute allegiance. He will not tolerate, but rather will rigorously judge the idolater.
2. Our second motive to repentance comes from a consideration of the MISERY of idolatry. In Psalm 16:4 we read, "The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied...". If another person is your god, be they ever the most excellent person, they will fail you. Money will fail you, your body and its health will someday finally fail you.
The heretical cults are another form of idolatry. It appears by the cults' distortion of the true Gospel. Oh the misery on the faces of people who secretly believe that finally, their salvation depends on how many doorbells they ring! Oh the sense of bondage reported, after their wonderful deliverance, by those once enthralled by the demonic power behind Mormonism, the Watchtower (so-called "Jehovah's Witnesses"), Moonies, and the like!
I don't think I will ever forget the images of the Islamic religious zealots of Teheran in the days of the Iranian hostage crisis, beating their backs with chains to express their religious devotion.
We were made to live for, glorify, and worship the true and living God. Until - by His power for salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ - we enter into such a worshiping relationship with the true and living God, vexation and and restless unhappiness is all we can expect.
3. Having considered God's warnings that He will judge idolaters, then looked at the misery of living in idolatry, we turn to a third motive to repent of idolatry - that is, to turn away from it, repudiate it, and love God alone.
That third motive appears when we realize the FOOLISHNESS of idolatry. In Jeremiah 2:13 we read, "For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water."
John Calvin and other great Christian teachers have often pictured God's inexhaustible blessings as coming to us through Christ the fountain. Jesus Himself said, "He who believes in Me, out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living waters." (John 7:38) Again referring to Jesus' testimony to the woman at the well of earthly water in John 4, we find that He said that the water he gives will be a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
God Himself is our infinite good. It's simple: do you want all the gold in the world, or the One Who created the world and all its gold! If you have God, you have One Who could, if it were His will, give you a mountain of the pretty yellow metal!
In Isaiah 44:9 and following, we see pictured a man who takes a log. He uses one piece of this block of wood to make fire for cooking and warmth, then fashions the other piece with woodworking tools, and calls it his god! How utterly foolish!
Foolishness in Scripture is not only being without good sense, something we easily realize by these observations. Foolishness in the Bible also involves wickedness. The folly of idolatry is a wicked thanklessness toward the One Who has given us everything. In Romans 1 Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit condemns the thankless world for worshiping the creature rather than the Creator, Who is blessed forever.
Do you delight to receive a gift that shows the giver has been very thoughtful of your wants and needs, has spared no expense, and has clearly shown that he or she loves and cares for you very much?
To be an idolater is to be one who receives an infinitely thoughtful, incalculably expensive gift that has flowed out of an eternally loving heart...then slaps the Giver in the face and throws the gift in the garbage.
4. The final motive to repentance we will consider is the LOVE of God, flowing from Him to us and back again. As per the Westminster Larger Catechism's treatment of the Decalog (10 Commandments), this is the positive side of the First Commandment: You shall not have any gods before Me also means You SHALL have Me as your God! What blessedness!
I refer yet again to the conversation between our Lord and the woman at Sychar's well, John chapter 4. Jesus told the woman that the Father SEEKS worshipers. What a comfort and joy, to know that God desires to be worshiped by us! It's not of any necessity on His part, which makes this even more precious. It is completely of His wonderful, incomprehensible love that the Lord God gives us the privilege of worshiping Him. This privilege is at the same time the greatest pleasure we could have.
To worship God alone, to know Him as loving Father and not eternally angry Judge, is not only the Divine commandment, but the joy of those who have turned away from the misery and folly of other gods.
You've heard of vicious cycles or downward spirals. This is a cycle of blessing that spirals upwards into the dazzling heights of eternal glory. The more we love and worship God, the more blessed we become, and the more we want to worship Him.
The written version of this sermon concludes with a homework assignment! For obvious reasons, we must use the honor system here. Can you read about 100 verses of the Bible in one sitting? Surely, you can. Well that's about the length of the apostle John's first letter. Read all of 1 John, thinking of its exaltation of Christ, its lofty spiritual principles, its emphasis on love, forgiveness, and life as a child of God. With what we have discussed in this message in mind, pay special attention to the closing statement of John's letter to believers. It will underscore the importance for the Christian of living in a state of repentance of the easily besetting sin of setting up idols in the heart. Amen.
This message was originally preached on August 24, 1997 at Sharon Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hialeah, Florida
It was preached on June 26, 2005 at New Life Presbyterian Church in Middletown, New Jersey, and is intended to be preached on July 10, 2005 at historic Fairfield Church in Fairton, New Jersey
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