We don’t know many names of people who were pastors of churches in the time of the Apostles. But we do know who the pastor of the church in Smyrna was. He was a man named Polycarp. Pastor Polycarp. He was born in about 70 AD, in the days of the Apostles, and studied under the apostle John, probably in Ephesus. When Jesus addresses this letter to the “angel of the church in Smyrna”, he is most likely addressing it to Pastor Polycarp.
In the year 155 AD, when pastor Polycarp was 86 years old, he went to visit Rome and when he came back to his church in Smyrna, he had the misfortune of returning during the time of a great festival that was attended by the proconsul. Part of the festival was to be a series of great sporting events in the arena – including the spectacle of watching Christians being torn apart by lions for the entertainment of the crowd.
Eleven Christians had already been put to death in the arena, but bloodlust of the crowd was so high that they longed for a fresh kill. The cry was raised out, “Let us search for Polycarp!” As pastor of the church, he was well known to the community and they wanted to see what would happen if he were to face the lions.
Polycarp, at first, was persuaded by his friends to hide from the pursuing soldiers at a local farm-house, but in their search the soldiers tortured two of the farm boys until they gave up Polycarp’s location. Escape was still possible, but after seeing the suffering his pursuit was causing, the old man refused to run away. He walked out to the soldiers and asked them to wait while he had a short time of prayer. They allowed it, and Pastor Polycarp actually ordered food for the men while they waited.
When he was brought to the arena, surrounded by thousands of spectators, the Proconsul actually tried to spare Polycarp’s life. He made it as simple as possible and said to the old pastor, “All you must say is, ‘Caesar is lord’ and ‘Away with the atheists’. And you will be spared. (Ironically, one of the accusations against Christians was that they were atheists because they wouldn’t worship the emperor or in the temples of Rome.) The charge brought against pastor Polycarp was treason.
Polycarp smiled and said, “Well, if that’s all you want me to say, I can say that.” He looked at the stands where the throngs of citizens and representatives of the Romans state and pagan religions were seated, raised his hands towards them and said yelled, “Away with the athiests!”
This isn’t what the Proconsul had in mind, but he tried again to get Polycarp to deny Jesus Christ to save his life. He said, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar. Take the oath and I will release you. Curse Chris and live!”
Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years I have served the Lord Jesus Christ, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
Hearing this, that Jesus was Lord and King and not Caesar, the onlookers in the arena demanded that the lions be loosed on him then and there. There was nothing more treasonous!
“Swear by the fortune of Caesar”, the Procunsul insisted.
Polycarp stood firm. “If you vainly imagine that I will swear by Caesar, and pretend that you do not know who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian.”, came the reply.
“I have wild beasts”, the proconsul warned. “If you do not repent, I will have you thrown to them!”
“Let them come, for my purpose is unchangeable”, Polycarp said.
“If the wild beasts do not scare you, then I will order you to be burned alive!”, the Proconsul shouted.
“You threaten me with a fire which will burn for an hour and then go out, but you are unaware of the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of eternal punishment which is kept for the ungodly. Why do you delay? Bring on the beasts, or the fire, or whatever you choose; you shall not move me to deny Christ, my Lord and Saviour.”
When the Proconsul saw that Polycarp would not recant, he sent the herald to proclaim three times in the middle of the stadium, “Polycarp has professed himself a Christian.”
As soon as they heard these words, the whole multitude of Romans and Jews furiously demanded that he be burned alive. Though it was Saturday, even the Jews ran out of the arena to gather timber and scraps of wood, breaking their laws of the Sabbath, so they could watch the Christian burn alive.
Polycarp was bound and placed on top of the pyre. “This is the teacher of Asia,” the it was announced. “This is the father of the Christians, this is the destroyer of our gods, this is the man who has taught so many no longer to sacrifice, and no longer to pray to the gods.”
The old pastor looked up to heaven and prayed, “O Father, I thank you that You have called me to this day and this hour and have counted me worthy to receive my place among the number of the holy martyrs. Amen.”
As soon as he had said the word “Amen” the officers lit the fire. The fire burned around him, rising high above his body, but burned away from him. Then someone called for a soldier to finish him off quickly with a dagger, and Polycarp was stabbed to death and left to burn.
Polycarp was charged with treason and his punishment was a terrible one. Why wouldn’t he just relent? Why not just tell them what they wanted to hear and then ask God’s forgiveness later? Why not simply sidestep the persecution and then go on with his life? Because there was a greater treason, far greater than treason against Rome or Caesar.
Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and read together: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
In this section, the Apostle Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is making a very clear point: idolatry is a big deal. We talked a little about this last week, but I want you to remember the context. Throughout all of chapters 8-10 Paul has been answering the question: What about food offered to idols? The situation in the church was that some people were still buying and eating the foods that were being offered as sacrifice to the pagan gods of Rome. If you recall, the temples were like a mix of churches, grocery stores, restaurants, and meeting halls, and it was common practice to buy and eat the food that was leftover from the rituals.
The Christians were torn on this issue. Part of the church thought this was no big deal. Paul said as much throughout and again here when he says, “That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No…”. That was one side of the argument, that it was no big deal because it’s just meat, just drink, just food, and as long as you know that who cares.
The other part of the church thought it was a HUGE deal. They didn’t want to go anywhere near the pagan temples and sacrifices! Every time they did their conscience started freaking out. And this created a rift in the church because both of them had a really good point.
It really was just meat and any Christian could eat it with no problems. But it is also unwise to go against your conscience or put yourself in a place where you will be tempted to sin. It’s similar to the conversations that Christians still have about going to the movies, or to a bar, or reading certain books, or playing certain video games. Half the church says it’s totally fine and the other half is waving the big, red warning flag. Which is right?
We’ve talked for a long time about that, so I’m not going to retread it here. It’s also continuing from last week where Paul is giving warnings about how serious this is. He says, flat out, that the meat is just meat, the idols are just statues, and the pagan gods aren’t real gods, but demons – but then wants to impress the church with just how serious the situation is.
Remember last week we talked about how someone in the church can think they are a Christian because they hang around other Christians, but not actually be saved? Paul drives that point telling them to really, really check their heart about this. Are they going to the pagan temple as a mature Christian, with a good conscience, or are they just people who take communion on Sundays and then do whatever they want during the week, assuming that they are going to be saved by their religious Christian actions. There’s a big, big difference between participating in the Christian religion and actually being a follower of Jesus, so he gives the warning via the example of the Israelites who left Egypt under Moses. They all thought they were saved, but in truth their hearts were far from God. They weren’t followers of God, but sexually immoral idolaters and grumblers who didn’t trust God at all. And they were banned from the Promised Land because of it. We talked about that last week.
And so here, God, through Paul, wants to make abundantly clear that going to the pagan temples and participating in their events has huge, spiritual consequences. It needs great consideration. So he gives the direct warning, again, in verse 10, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” and then gets into the spiritual reality going on around them. He says in verse 16-18, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?”
He’s talking about the Lord’s Supper, or what we call Communion. He says that when we participate in Lord’s Supper we are doing something extremely special and it’s all wrapped around that word “Participation”, which is the Greek word KOINONIA or “fellowship”. This word is used all over the New Testament.
It’s used in Acts 2:42 when it talks about the very first Christian church formed after Pentecost. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (KOINONIA), to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” We have fellowship, unity, sharing, participation with each other as the church, the body of Christ.
It’s used in Philippians 2:1-2 which says, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship (KOINONIA) with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” We have fellowship, unity, sharing, participation with the Holy Spirit who binds us all together.
The Apostle John, in 1 John 1, says that the proclamation of the gospel was “so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (vs 3) KOINONIA is a big, biblical concept.
God created man to be in fellowship and participation, KOINONIA with Him. But we sinned and broke that bond. God cannot be associated with sin and our sin made it so we could no longer be with Him, and became, in fact, His enemies. He is life, sin brought death. He is good, sin brought evil. We were created to be rulers and stewards of His Kingdom of light, sin made it so we would be bound as slaves to Satan, the prince of darkness. God created KOINONIA, our sin brought division.
The gospel is that Jesus came and saved those who had been made dark, dead, enemies of God. He entered the world that he might save sinners and restore the KOINONIA between God and man, for anyone who would believe.
One picture God gave us to remind us of all this is the Lord’s Supper, or Communion. We show all these truths every time we celebrate it together. We take one loaf and break it. We take one bottle and pour it. Then we take our own little cup and our own little piece of the bread and we recognize them as symbols of our KOINONIA with God and our fellow Christians. When we drink and eat together the symbols representing the body and blood of Jesus, we are eating and drinking in memory of Him and all he has done to bring us back into KOINONIA with Him and each other. We once participated or fellowshipped or shared in Adam’s sin (Rom 5) and Satan’s rebellion (Eph 2), but now we participate or fellowship or share with Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, his holiness, sufferings, and glory.
Taking communion is for Christians. Eating the bread and drinking the cup shows that we have changed fellowships, changed teams, and are now totally with Jesus. We are His because He bought us with His blood shed on the cross. He is our Lord, King, Saviour, Master, God and Friend, and we are his people, his body, his church.
This is why it says in verse 18, “Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” The word “Participants” is a form of the word KOINONIA. Remember all he just said about Israel. The altar in the Old Testament was a table on which food was regularly sacrificed to God. The priests ate from the offerings, sharing the table with God, as a representative of the rest of Israel. It was a symbol of their desire for KOINONIA with God. In the same way, Christians also have a table on which food is served as a symbol of our KOINONIA with God – the Lord’s Supper.
And so, he continues in verses 19, “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
Why was it such a big deal to simply go into a temple and eat the food there? Because, what is happening in that building, at that table, at that altar, is a reflection of the fellowship, the KOINONIA those people have – not with Apollos or Aphrodite or whatever made up god, but with demons. Just as we are fellowshipping with, united with, participating with, sharing with, bound to, God in the Lord’s Supper, so they are fellowshipping with, united with, participating with, sharing with, bound to, demons.
You can’t have both. Polycarp knew this, which is why he faced lions and the pyre instead of simply uttering those few words, “Caesar is lord.” It would be, as one of my favourite theologians RC Sproul says, “cosmic treason”. This is what Adam committed. Cosmic treason is the ultimate definition of sin.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t play for both teams. You can’t eat from both tables. You can’t have two lords. You must, must, must choose. Jesus promises a separation in the end and we’d better be on the right side of it.
Which is why we read, “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” Or more colloquially, “What are you, nuts? Are you trying to bring God’s discipline upon you? Do you not remember what happened to Israel when they set up idols in their nation or worshipped Baal? Do you want that to happen to you? Do you think you are the one person who can play both sides, acting like a Christian sometimes and playing with demons the rest, and that you won’t get burned? Do you think that you can take God’s plan, His righteousness, His gift, and His concern to protect the truth that He alone is God and the only way of Salvation, and stomp all over it by also worshipping the ‘gods’ of human invention? Do you think that God is going to share praise and worship and his people with demons? If you do, you’re insane! He has promised that those who worship idols will provoke His jealousy and his wrath – just as we saw Israel experience over and over.” Polycarp knew this and had a right fear of God.
Modern Equivalents and Conclusion
Now you may be thinking, “Ok, Pastor Al, I promise that if anyone ever invites me to a Greek temple to worship Apollos, I definitely won’t go, ok? If anyone asks me to come over and eat meat offered to idols, I will definitely decline. Thanks for the warning.” But how often will that kind of thing come up these days?
Let me give you four ways that idolatry still comes up today:
First, there still are pagan religions out there and Christians still often tempted to mix their beliefs and practices with them. The horoscopes and psychics and crystals and chakras and angel worship and other new age stuff we have around us are demonic and some Christians are tempted towards them. Some churches try to incorporate pagan rituals like prayer labyrinths into their spiritual disciplines. Some people try to use God as a good luck charm by going to church and having communion on Sundays, but then try to incorporate Wiccan rituals, Buddhist meditation, Islamic prayer times, and other religious thinking into their relationship with God. God is clear that we can’t do that.
The Second, way is what I’ll call, Blending. This isn’t purely pagan or demonic, but it’s something that Christians need to strongly consider in light of what we have learned here today. Think about how much spiritual blending there is during holiday times like Christmas and Easter – and of course Halloween.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus, but we also have holly, ivy, mistletoe, Christmas trees, yule logs, lights, gift giving, fruitcake, and Dec. 25th, which all have pagan origins! We celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus with bunnies, candy, chicks and coloured eggs. And Halloween is just a mess that I won’t get into now. Even our church has some of this blending. The fact we are meeting in a special church building and called Christians came from pagan origins. The days and months on our calendar are based in ancient pagan mythology. Birthdays also have pagan origins.
Does this mean we declare anyone who eats fruitcake or colours eggs or has a birthday party to be anathema from the church? No, that’s not what this is teaching us. What it’s saying is that we need to think about this stuff. There’s a website online called GotQuestions.org that I really like that tries to answer a lot of these questions with biblical wisdom. Just a quick scan of their topics comes up with things like: Should a Christian play Pokemon, use Facebook, go to parties, do jury duty, watch mma, read Harry Potter, practice feng shui, do cosplay, and much more. Christians care about the truth and about what God thinks of things. So we ask, what does the Bible say? What does our conscience say? How does it affect others? We’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth remembering that some of the traditions and practices we hold so dear need to be carefully thought through.
The third I will call, Cultural Corruption. This is a big deal these days as it comes up all the time. There are some churches that are claiming that God has sanctioned things, or is celebrating things, that He does not. They take a biblical teaching, corrupt it, and then invite people to celebrate it. Here’s a couple examples.
The blessing of pets or giving pets communion. Some churches do this as an outreach and invite people to come to make sure their pets get into heaven. This is wrong and a corruption of the Lord’s Supper, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and of the teachings of the Bible, and therefore Christians cannot participate. For us to go to that event would be saying that we agree with what they are doing. Our presence gives our blessing to their sin and error.
The same sort of thing happens with where we give our money or work. Sometimes the groups that are sent to help during a crisis also promote evil practices. For example, there are some organizations that not only fund education and healthcare, but also abortions. A Christian simply cannot willingly give their money to a group that funds abortions. Or consider personal, financial investments in companies that are known to use child or slave labour. There have been Christians who have been put in the position where they would be forced, by their employers, to do something unethical and unbiblical. They refused to compromise their integrity or disobey God, so they have had to quit.
Another example is attending or participating in the wedding of a gay, adulterous, or ungodly couple. In one sense, it’s a good thing to be friends with anyone who cares for you enough to invite you to their wedding. Jesus ministered to and befriended all kinds of people and that’s a good thing you are like Him in that way. And we know that being a Christian doesn’t make us better than anyone else, so it’s not about that. Some Christians think that they should attend any kind of wedding because it’s a celebration of love and even if the couple is in sin, at least they can extend Christ’s love to their friends without judging them. This isn’t true.
As a pastor, I have quite a long marriage policy that covers a lot of ways that I will not marry a couple – and there’s way more on it than just gay marriage. I won’t marry people who aren’t active Christians attending the same, sound, evangelical church. I won’t marry people who don’t have the blessing of their families on their marriage. I won’t marry people who have prenuptial agreements. I won’t marry people who are having sex before marriage. I won’t marry people who refuse to have premarital counselling. I won’t marry some divorced couples if their situation is still unbiblical. Why?
Because marriage is something God has spoken very clearly about. He says in Hebrews 13:4 that “marriage should be honoured by all” because it’s not a human construction, but a divine one. It’s His idea, not ours, and therefore we must do it his way, not ours. And if the couple isn’t going to do it God’s way, then I will not stand before God as the official who tied them together. In the same way, every Christian needs to know that their participation – as in making the cake, taking the pictures, attending, or being in the wedding party, is you saying that, by your presence, you agree with and support this union. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you believe and obey what God says in scripture about marriage and then also celebrate people that are disobeying what God has said.
And finally, the fourth way we do this is simply by being a leading two different lives. Following Jesus and the world. Trying to balance God’s priorities with your own. God’s plan with your own. God’s ways with the world’s. Simply put, this is hypocrisy. It means that out of one side of your mouth you say you believe that Jesus is God and the only one you will worship, while out of the other side of your mouth you worship and prioritize all sorts of other things. It means saying that you believe God answers prayer, but never actually pray. It means you say that God’s word is true, but then disagree with it when it commands you to do something difficult like submit to authority or forgive someone. It means that you say that generosity is important, but then live like a miser. It means that you say you trust God, but then build materialistic walls out around you out of money and stuff and put your faith it them. It means you say that you trust in God’s plan, but then pursue the worldly version of success all week long.
You can’t have it both ways. Jesus says in Luke 16:13, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” He says in Matthew 12:25, “a house divided against itself will not stand.” James 1:6-8 says this person “is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind… a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
I implore you to ask God to reveal the ways that you are trying to stand on both sides of the fence, or play for both teams. The ways you are trying to serve two masters is causing you to be unstable. Ask God’s forgiveness for having these idols and for him to you, restore you back to KOINONIA with Him.
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
Mortification of Sin
We’re jumping in and continuing on from last week, still on the topic of self-discipline and are continuing our discussion of what it means to take following Jesus seriously.
When we become a Christian and start following Jesus we are given an inward drive towards becoming more like Jesus – more holy, more righteous, more loving. “Be holy as I am holy”, God says to His people, and then gives us the help to do that.
We’ve talked before that we don’t do this in order to get saved but out of love and obedience for the One who saved us. We know we’ll never achieve perfection in this life, and that, because of our sinful nature we’re going to keep breaking God’s laws and doing wrong – but now that we are Christian we hate that sinful part of us, because it was sin that has messed up the world, our lives, and is what required Jesus to die on the cross. So we confess those sins every day in prayer, are thankful that God’s grace is so big and that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins past and future so we can be forgiven, and then we ask God for more help, more love, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more self-control in the coming day to live better. Not just to be a holier than thou Christian prude, but because we’ve seen how sin hurts us, others, and our relationship with God.
That’s how Christians see sin. That’s why we work hard to get rid of the sins in our life – what believers used to call the “mortification of sin”. We work with God to try to mortify, or kill, or subdue, the fleshly, sinful desires inside us that cause so much trouble.
God uses some pretty serious, life and death language when speaking of how we should deal with our sin and practice self-control. Listen to Colossians 3:1-6 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 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.”
So, because sin is so serious, a believer engages in a process called sanctification. To sanctify something means to set it apart for special use, to be made holy. Grandma’s special china collection is sanctified by the fact that it is cleaned and then kept carefully in a china cabinet. Your favourite hockey card is sanctified by you taking it from the collection, putting it into a special protective case, and then mounting it on the wall. You are sanctified by Jesus as you are taken from the enemy camp into his kingdom, from death to life, from slave to sin to freedom in Christ, and made one of His special people.
If you remember way back in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 it told us, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We cannot be righteous without Jesus. We can’t redeem ourselves. And we cannot purify or sanctify ourselves without Jesus. The Gospel of Christ tells us the consequences of our sins – death, hell, pain, suffering, fear, addiction, brokenness. It tells us that Jesus has come to save us from all that by taking the penalty for sin upon Himself, wiping out its effects by taking God’s wrath against sin for us, dying on the cross, and then rising again to show that He has destroyed sin’s power – and then invites us to follow Him. This is what it means to be born again. When we are chosen by God and accept His invitation we are immediately sanctified. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice made it so that all our sins are perfectly dealt with and if we died today we would be with Jesus forever.
But at the same time, while we still live on earth we continue to deal with the echo effects of sin all around us. So, while we are perfectly clean in God’s eyes, perfectly accepted, perfectly redeemed, we also enter the process of sanctification in order to become more like Jesus every day. We use a lot of different phrases to describe this today. We talk about growing in God or becoming spiritually mature, but whatever we call it, part of that process is the mortification, or killing, of the sinful parts of ourselves that affect our daily walk in this world. We will never become perfect, but we continue to struggle against and work towards holiness. We “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]…”
Going Through the Motions
Now, just like today, some of the people in the Corinthian church thought that since they professed faith in Jesus, went to church, and joined in the Lord’s Supper, they could then live however they wanted. Remember the context of eating meat offered to idols and causing those around them to stumble in their faith by going against their consciences. They figured that since they were Christians, they could do whatever they wanted! Paul wanted them to be absolutely clear that wasn’t true, it was a false belief, and so he used multiple examples
This still happens today. Young people who have gone to church their whole life are especially in danger of this way of thinking. They have gone to church for as long as they can remember, can quote verses from the Bible, serve in a couple places each week, go to Youth Group or Small Group, they can answer some Bible Trivia questions and take communion each month… so they figure they’re good. They’re covered.
The Bible says, be careful. There’s a big difference between saving faith and merely going through the motions of a believer. Of course, this isn’t just about youth. I’ve seen this at all ages. People who attend sometimes, do a little volunteer work, and say they believe… maybe they even had a tearful conversion at a summer camp or walked down an aisle at a crusade – but they’re not engaged in the daily battle against sin. And they’re not just disengaged, they don’t actually care.
This is most acute when the young person turns 18 and moves out or goes off to college or starts a job and is getting paid and is then given the freedom of an adult. Suddenly it becomes clear that their faith is extremely thin, they haven’t been working on their sanctification at all, and within a short time, they are in real trouble. They weren’t Christians, they were merely covered by the grace of their Christian parents.
It wasn’t they that decided not to look at pornography, it was the fact that it wasn’t available in the house. It wasn’t they that decided not to waste hours on the internet and video games, it was their parent’s rules and schedules. It wasn’t they that decided to watch their tongue, it was the peer pressure from their Christian friends. It wasn’t they that decided reading the Bible. going to church, being cautious about friendships, and the rest was important, it was enforced in by house rules.
And when they get that first taste of freedom from those rules, their true level of sanctification really shows. Soon they are addicted, indebted, depressed, lethargic, have turned their back on the church, and have just enough understanding of God to blame and resent Him for all their problems. Again, I don’t want to pick on just young people, I’ve seen this in seniors too, where the only thing that kept them from blowing up their life was external pressure, not internal sanctification.
This too is all over scripture. The wheat and the chaff, the good seeds and bad, parable of the sower, the sheep and the goats, wolves in sheep’s clothing, whitewashed tombs, play actors (Matt. 3:12; 13:1-30; 5:15; 25:31-46; 23:25-27) are all phrases where Jesus talks about people that look like Christians to everyone else but are not really saved. These people talk about God, come to church, and receive the blessings of being a Christian without ever turning away from sin and towards Jesus.
Think of it like a strong smell. Coffee shops have a distinct smell. So do hockey and curling rinks. So does a workout gym or the Body Shop store. You’ve probably had that experience when someone comes home from a night out and you can tell exactly where they’ve been just by the smell, right? They walk by and immediately you just what they’ve been doing because they carry the smell with them. My wife used to work at a place where she always came back smelling of bagels. She’d have to change her clothes and wash her hair before it would come out. I had the same problem when I worked at the pulp mill. I always came home smelling of black liquor, which is basically the waste product from turning trees into pulp. It smells a lot worse than bagels and there were times I would have to strip down right in the doorway and leave my clothes in the garage rather than bring them in the house.
In the same way, a non-believer who comes to church and hangs around Christians can pick up their smell – their lifestyle choices, their joy, kindness, high morals, honesty, etc. but not actually have faith in Jesus at all. They can even stay so long they start to believe they are Christians without actually giving their life to Jesus.
Israel and Us
Let’s turn back to our passage. As we saw last week Paul used himself as an example of spiritual maturity and self-denial, but now he goes the other way and uses Israel as an example of spiritual immaturity. “The perfect example of believing the false notion that one can be saved and then live a faithless, God-less life can be seen in what happened to the Jews’ ancestors in the wilderness…” He phrases this as a warning, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
These were people who were saved by God as Christians are. They had multiple, manifold, manifest spiritual blessings. Miracles galore. Their story is every Christian’s story. They were rescued at a great cost from an oppressor, delivered from death by the blood of the lamb, redeemed from slavery, and given a new life. They were guided by God’s presence, given direction in the wilderness and darkness of life. They had a law-giver and spiritual leader to follow, just as we do in Jesus. As they trusted in God their enemies fell before them and behind them. And all along, they were given daily provision to sustain their bodies and souls. Every day they saw a new act of God’s love for them. Paul then drives the point home reminding them that Jesus is God and was the one protecting and providing for the Israelites, just like He does for us!
A People Overthrown by God
But now look at verse 5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” This should give us all great pause. God worked miracles, set them free from slavery, and provided for them along the way – but their hearts were not with Him. They were like the young person living with Christian parents, or the citizen living in a civil country. They had the blessings of being a child of God, surrounded by the smell, but their hearts were not with Him.
The word “most” is a pretty big understatement since out of the thousands that left Israel, only two were allowed into the Promised Land! The rest were left to wander and die in the wilderness. They were people of God, who saw God’s miracles, but died in faithlessness.
So, what happened? It is the same story from the beginning of Genesis all the way to the end. They didn’t have faith, they didn’t believe what God had said, they didn’t trust in God alone for their salvation. That’s what God desires. The path of Salvation is fairly simple. It means trusting that what God says is true and believing that His way is the only way.
It was like that for Adam and Eve, many stories of the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Pharisees and Judas in the New. God’s message was clear, they chose not to believe it, and were therefore condemned and “overthrown” by God.
In verse 6 we read, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Sometimes people wonder why we have the Old Testament when we have the New, or what value there is in the Old Testament. It’s ancient, full of difficult things to read, and the New Testament seems so much nicer.
This verse tells us one reason why. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is immutable, unchangeable. The God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, killed everyone in the flood, and instituted blood sacrifices as the only way to appease His wrath against sin is the same God who came to earth as a baby, wept over Jerusalem, died on the cross, and taught us to love our neighbours. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, the Apostle’s Bible, and the first church’s Bible, and was perfectly sufficient for teaching about faith, salvation and life. The Old Testament doesn’t tell a different story, but gives us the beginning of the story and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t study it. Paul says that the stories we read of the Israelites and how God dealt with them are examples for us that we should learn from.
So what are we to learn? There are four main sins that are highlighted. Let’s read together, and notice how serious these warnings are. Starting in verse 7: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The temptations the ancient Israelites went through are the same as we go through today, and the sins they commit that separate them from God are the same too. The stories of the Bible are there to instruct us, warn us, encourage us, and teach us about ourselves and God. So I’m going to ask you to do a little digging in your soul to see if these are represented there.
The first mentioned is idolatry, which references the story of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and while he was there Aaron and the rest of the Israelites crafted an idol to worship in place of God. It wasn’t that they were simply tempted to put their faith somewhere else, it was that they actively chose to reject Yahweh, formed a false god of their own, and then “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”, meaning they copied in the cultural, pagan festivals they saw around them.
They did, essentially what I’ve been talking about with young people and cultural Christians. While Moses was away they threw all their beliefs out the window and then worshipped, feasted, drank and danced the way they always wanted to, showing what was really going on in their hearts.
We do the same today as we turn away from God and put our faith and trust in things of our own design – money, insurance, diet, human authorities, or when we dabble with pagan things like horoscopes or superstitions. We can make money, comfort, food, or sex our idol as we turn to it to save us from pain, guilt, shame, fear. Remember the context of the Corinthian church eating food offered to idols and realize that Paul was also speaking of Israel’s example of eating, drinking and partying like unbelievers, throwing off God’s standards and doing whatever they felt they wanted to do regardless of how it affected themselves or anyone else.
If you want to know what idols you have in your life, ask yourself: what you do and what do you reach for when you hit a crisis hits or when you want to celebrate?
The second temptation for the Israelites was sexual immorality. Pornography, lustful thoughts, wandering eyes, sexual fantasy, adultery, and the rest. For them, this was tied to their idol worship. They used the golden calf and worshipping false gods as an excuse to sin sexually. Once they had crafted a god of their own, or borrowed one from a neighbouring nation, they worshipped it as the unbelievers did – which included sexual sins. As we’ve already learned, this was a huge temptation in Corinth, but just as much in ancient Israel.
The further you wander from God, the more you believe what the world believes and act like the world acts, the easier it is to fall for the temptation toward sexual sin. We’ve already talked a lot about that so I won’t belabour the point, but notice God’s punishment here. You might think, “Well, that’s back in the olden days, God doesn’t do that now!”
Listen to the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5-8, at the end of the Bible: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”
You may think Jesus is the warm and cuddly version of God that doesn’t care about sin, lets everyone do what they want, and lets everyone into heaven, but I assure you, He’s the same as He was with the Israelites. He may wait on the punishment, but I assure you that your faith is revealed in your actions and though you may not take your sin seriously, but Jesus sure does.
Does that mean a Christian who sins sexually can lose their salvation? No. As we said before, the difference is sanctification. The difference is that you hate that sin and want to be rid of it. Do you?
The third temptation was put Christ to the test. What does that mean? It means questioning God’s reliability. It’s when we declare God unreliable and then force or demand that He proves himself to us. The Israelites “put Christ to the test” as they told Moses that God and him don’t know what they are doing, that they would surely die of hunger and thirst, that life was better under slavery, that God was holding out on them, refusing to give them their favourite foods, and ultimately that God wasn’t strong enough to defeat their enemies. Over and over they said that God had left them and demanded more and more miracles. (Numb 21, Exo 17)
The Pharisees “put Christ to the test” too. Even though they had heard of and even witnessed multiple miracles, they continued to bring false charges against Jesus, tried to trick Jesus into making mistakes, and then demanding Jesus prove Himself with more miracles (Mark 8:11, Matthew 12:38-39). They even did it as He hung on the cross.
Satan “put Christ to the test” in the wilderness as he tempted Jesus to work miracles for wrong reasons – even tempting Jesus to force God Father to prove His love and prove Jesus’ was special by jumping off the top of the temple!
Have you done this? Atheists love this game. They love mocking Christians and telling God to dance for them, write in the sky, do a crazy sign, and then claiming God doesn’t exist when He refuses to play their game. Do you do this? Do you ever tell God that you’ll believe or obey if He’ll do something for you? Do you ever put yourself in a situation where God has to act just so you can see if He’s real? Do you ever question if God is good or His ways are right, and then deny Him when things don’t go your way? The Bible is clear that is a very serious sin.
Jesus responds, “An evil and adulterious generation seeks for a sign…” Jesus never rebukes or corrects people who are genuinely seeking Him out of need, but He also knows when people are coming with wrong motives.
And the fourth temptation was what is here called “grumbling”. Grumbling isn’t simply talking to God about tough things in your life that you don’t like. God wants us to bring our frustrations, concerns, worries and all the rest to Him. Grumbling is akin to complaining. It’s that low-level murmer in the heart where you keep telling yourself how horrible your life is, how it’s out of control, how the universe is out to get you, that God isn’t helping, nothing is right, there’s not enough money, time, energy, health, or anything else. Your friends aren’t really that good, your house isn’t right, your technology isn’t good enough, your spouse isn’t good enough, your life is too hard, too hot, too cold, too noisy, too quiet… murmur murmer grumble grumble complain complain.
This one is very difficult for me and one of my greatest temptations. I’m a child of discontent and have a very critical heart. I know this about myself and I have to be very careful about it. Why? Because grumbling is spiritually destructive and debilitating. It shows a lack of faith in God, a belief that He is unloving towards you. It’s a lack of contentedness and shows a misunderstanding of grace. It is the belief that you inherently deserve more than you have and God is unfairly holding out on you. It destroys your worship, your prayer life, your relationships, and your witness to others. A grumbling spirit leads to fighting with others, and envy, jealousy, covetousness. (James 4:1-3) “I hate that person. Their life is better than my life, their job is better, the have more of what I want…. And I hate God too for not giving me what they have.” There’s a big difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Job complained to God but didn’t sin. Israel complained about God and did sin.
What about you? Are you a grumbler?
This section ends with, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
God is faithful. He is for you. He wants your sanctification and wants you to be more holy, because more holiness leads to more joy. He wants your spiritual success and knows what you need in order to grow. He knows your breaking points. Your temptations are not unique to you and he has given you scripture, fellow believers, and the Holy Spirit within you to help you understand them and get through it. And, when you are faced with the burden of temptation, God promises two things: a way out of the temptation, and the strength to endure it. The escape may not be immediate, but He promises that if you trust Him, lean on Him, ask Him, then you will have the strength to endure the temptation and mortify that sin within you – and then grow stronger in faith and in sanctification.
 Life Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Pg 135.
We’re currently on week 8 of our 3 week series on the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, and this week we’re concluding our study of the five Woes Against the Chaldeans that we find in chapter 2.
If you remember the other sermons in this series you’ll remember that we’ve seen quite a downward spiral over the past series of weeks as we’ve been looking through this chapter. We’ve seen that the Chaldean nation was full of pride, fueled by addiction to alcohol and sex, which had them thinking that the world existed for their pleasure and conquest. Their addiction became a voracious appetite that required them to break out from beyond their borders in order to consuming the people around them – including Israel – eventually becoming one of the greatest empires in history; the Babylonian Empire. (Greatest in size, not in quality!)
As they conquered nation after nation, tallying up victory on victory, God Himself was making his own tally of the sins they were committing. Habakkuk pronounced woes against them, and all those who would follow their pattern. Remember, a “woe” is simply a pronouncement of judgement against people who don’t realize how dangerous their situation is. The Chaldeans, later called Babylonians, thought they were the kings of the world – but their whole nation was built on sin and God was saying that He would exact justice on them soon.
The first woe was against their out of control greed that drove them to take things that weren’t theirs from their neighbours. The second woe was against their sense of self-security, where they believed that conquering the people around them and building piles of wealth would bring them safety. The third woe was against their self-centredness. All that they had was covered in the blood of their neighbours and they didn’t care. And the fourth woe was against their abuse of others – anyone who didn’t join them in their addictions would be either killed or exploited for their pleasure.
For each of these woes we have drawn parallels to our own nation and individual lives. We’ve been confronted by our own greed and selfishness. We’ve been forced to evaluate where we find our security, and in what ways we act self-centredly, using people to feed our own appetites, instead of loving them as God intends us.
The Real Problem is Idolatry
Today we’re going to look at the fifth of the five woes and it is perhaps the most damning of the bunch. It shows the central problem that all people have that drives them to the sins of greed, pride, addiction, self-centredness and exploitation. The real issue is idolatry.
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:18-20)
What makes people assume that they can do whatever they want and get away with it? What would make the leaders of a nation think that the world exists for their conquest and pleasure, and that it doesn’t matter how they treat their fellow man? What causes someone to think that they can commit criminal acts, covet and steal what others have, harm those around them, commit murder, cause fights, lie, gossip, slander, disrespect authority, insult God, boast in their own accomplishments, invent new ways of committing evil, disobey their parents, and live foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless lives? Where does that come from? (Based on Romans 1:28-31)
The answer is all over scripture, and the answer is idolatry. For the Chaldeans, they had many god’s and literal idols that they had carved to represent them all over their land. They had gods for the elements, for storms, the sun, the moon, the air, for love and war – all kinds.
As Habakkuk points out, these false gods were merely human inventions. They were shaped by human stories and then carved of wood, metal and stone. They had no real power. They were “speechless idols” who could neither give wisdom nor strength.
God, through the prophet Habakkuk, pronounces woe on these people because they look at a piece of wood that they have carved and tell it to “wake up!” or “get up!”, thinking it might actually work. The woe is against those who have placed their faith in their “own creation” and actually believe that it will be able to “awake” or “arise” at their command. But it’s just a piece of wood with some gold or silver overlaid on it. “There is no breath at all in it.”
The consequences of this woe come from the folly of asking their “own creation” to teach them. “Can this teach?” Habakkuk asks. It’s the foolishness of circular reasoning. “I’m doing this because my god told me to, and I know exactly what my god wants me to do because I’m the person that invented that god, carved the image, and wrote down what it he would say.”
That’s the danger of creating our own idols – that we are merely creating a god for ourselves that will parrot back to us whatever we want it to say. The answer to the question, “Can this teach?” is obviously, “No!”. You cannot gain more wisdom or information from something you have created yourself! If you invent a god and then write your own holy book, there is no way for you to gain any more teaching than you had before. Woe to that fool.
But God is Real
“But”, verse 20 says, “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Habakkuk says to all these idolaters: Your gods are dead, but the LORD is both alive and awake. He’s not powerless like one of your human creations. He’s powerful and self-existent. He doesn’t require us to command Him to awaken or arise. He has wisdom, knowledge and authority beyond our human capacity, and is therefore able to teach!
Therefore, Habakkuk says, “let all the earth keep silence before him.” That’s Bible talk for “SO SHUT UP AND LISTEN!” That’s another phrase we find a few times in the Bible. In Psalm 46:10 we read one of many Christian’s favourite passages: “Be still and know that I am God.”, but most people don’t know the context. We read it with such sterility and quietness, but that’s not how it was written! Let’s read the context:
“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’” (Ps 46:6-10)
The picture is of God, with a word, wiping out every human power we have, shaking the foundations of the planet, melting the very earth with his voice, causing every piece of weaponry to explode into flames before Him as he shouts to the word, “Be Still!… See and witness the truth of who I am… KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that I AM GOD. Not you, not your kings, not the idols that you have fashioned – ME. And I alone will be worshipped.”
This is what’s behind the words of Philippians 2:9 that says:“
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It’s not talking about just Christians – but everyone, from His human enemies to Satan himself –will bow their knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They won’t have a choice. At His voice the earth will melt.
It’s not talking about just Christians – but everyone, from His human enemies to Satan himself –will bow their knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They won’t have a choice. At His voice the earth will melt.
Woe to anyone who has their allegiances in the wrong place when Jesus comes and kindles his wrath against them. (Psalm 2)
Mocking The Folly of Idolatry
There’s an amazing section of scripture that illustrates this and mocks those foolish enough to worship idols. Turn to Isaiah 44:9-20 and let’s take a look at a truly funny passage of scripture, dripping with irony and sarcasm:
“All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.”
This is similar to what we’ve just been talking about – how these idols, in reality, are incapable of helping anyone. But next we see Isaiah show how lost, stupid and utterly blind to their own foolishness these people are. Continue in verse 12:
“The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint.
The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.
Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’”
Is this not the height of irony and irrationality? Isaiah starts with a picture of an ironsmith, using his own muscles and sweat to make his idol. He gets hungry and tired, looks around and sees no water. He is dying of hunger and thirst as he creates the god that he’s supposed to pray to for his food. How ridiculous!
The picture then shifts to an expert carpenter, using his skills to design a beautiful idol for his home. He too uses his mind and strength to plant and harvest the wood he will use… and he gets hungry too. So he gathers his own meat, and makes his own fire so he can roast it himself. But there’s a problem: which part of the tree he has just cut down is is the part that he’s supposed to burn as fuel for him to cook over and which part is the god he’s supposed to say grace to?
By verse 18 you can almost see Isaiah face-palming. These dummies are so blind – in their eyes and their hearts – they don’t even consider what they’re doing. They have no discernment, no knowledge, to even understand of how stupid it is to think that half of the tree is fuel and the other half is god!
He closes by saying, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” This guy should be looking down at the idol he just crafted and think, “Hey, maybe I’m wrong here! I’m such a dummy for thinking that this piece of wood has any kind of power! How stupid is it to think this dead thing I just created can somehow bring hope and joy to my life? ” But nope – we keep on fabricating our own idols generation after generation after generation, and we still don’t get it.
So my question to you today is this: Are we any different? Perhaps you’re not sitting in your blacksmiths or carpentry shop carving little wooden and metal images to decorate your home, but are there things in your life that basically have the same function?
I was teaching my class at the Christian School this week and we were talking about “The Christian Ninja’s Source of Power”. The whole point of that class was to get the students to ask themselves one thing: What is the main motivation for what I do?
For a Christian, our “source of power” and reason we do what we do is our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We know that Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 15:5) and we’re ok with that. He’s our source of strength, wisdom, knowledge, help, courage, conviction, and whatever else we need. We turn to Him because He’s our source.
However, there are a lot of people, including Christians, who find their strength in other places. We all have a source of power, a source of strength, or an overarching motivation behind what we do, and we could easily call that our god. Some people have religious motivations, others are driven by more selfish pursuits, but we all have them.
Some people use astrology, Wicca, paganism, deism, and other forms of human religion as their source of strength. They seek help in this world by believing they can use the spiritual realms to manipulate the world around them for their own benefit. It’s all demonic, but they’re also idolaters who are crafting their own rules about the universe and then live by them, often picking and choosing what they want to believe, based on what makes them feel good, or what makes sense to them, sometimes even making it up out of thin air. These people are deceived, not only by their own blindness, but by the demons they turn to.
Other people are less religious terminology, but they still put their faith into things of their own making – their weapons, money, possessions, technology, or medicine. They elevate these dead, man-crafted things to the level of deity, placing their faith in them, sacrificing a lot of their life to them, in the hopes that the idols will ultimately save them.
They stockpile their weapons and make great walls to keep out the bad-guys so they will be safe. They save and invest and purchase more and more believing that the more they have the more secure they will be. A lot of people today worship science and scientists as their gods, believing that the salvation of the world, the gift of eternal life, and a utopian future is just around the corner with the next medical or technological breakthrough.
But they make the same mistake as the blacksmith or carpenter that Isaiah is mocking. They’re doing the same thing that Habakkuk is pronouncing a woe against the Chaldeans for. They’re putting their faith into something man-made. They believe that man can make something that transcends man. That we can think up something that goes beyond human knowledge. That we can create something that has the power of a Creator.
But are they not merely “feeding on ashes”? They shout at their creation to “Awake! Feed me! Clothe me! Keep me safe!”, but it sits there silent – or only repeats back to them what they have commanded it to say. They cry out, “Arise!”, but it can only go as high as it has been built to go.
We know in our heads, when we take a moment to think about it, that “there is no breath at all in” our hand-crafted idols, our horoscope, our pagan rituals, our security systems, money, possessions or technology – so then why do we keep turning to them over and over for hope, joy and salvation?
The Source of Idolatry
Turn with me to Romans 1 and we’ll read the answer together. This is a complex bit of scripture, but taken as a whole it both makes sense and explains why we have such a penchant for crafting our own idols. The reason is simple: We love our sin and sin makes us blind to the truth.
Read Romans 1:16:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ states two very important things: first, that we are great sinners condemned to eternal death, and that the only way to be saved from the consequences of our sin is to believe in Jesus, our great Savior. A lot of people are “ashamed of the gospel” because they don’t like one or both of those ideas. They don’t think thinking that they’re sinners, or they want their salvation to come from Jesus alone. The Gospel, as presented in the Bible doesn’t allow for that. To be saved, we must believe we are sinners and come to Jesus alone for Salvation.
But instead of confessing their sins and coming to Jesus, most people embrace their sins and then fashion for themselves another god that tells them what they want to hear.
Keep reading in verse 18:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
In other words, every human being knows right and wrong because they have a conscience that condemns them, and they know that God exists because the whole of creation testifies that there must be a Creator. “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”
But, they hate this truth. The existence of a moral law and a Moral Law Giver that holds them accountable is detestable to them. They hate the idea that they can’t make up their own rules and judge themselves based on their own ideas of right and wrong so they “suppress the truth.” Every time they have a twinge of conscience, they stuff it down deep and pretend that they didn’t feel it. Every time their mind says, “Wow, this is something transcendent about this universe, something beyond my ability to comprehend, maybe there is a God after all”, they crush that thought and refuse to listen to their own minds.
Keep reading in verse 22:
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
This is what we’re talking about today. They’ve denied that the real God exists, but they need something in His place. They can’t simply say that they are the creator of their own universe, so they must supplant the true Creator, and find something that will explain why everything exists and how everything is supposed to work.
So they invent a god of their own design and have it say whatever they want it to say. Now they can have their cake and eat it too – they get to worship a god, and call themselves faithful, and claim to have a relationship with a higher power – but don’t actually have to listen to God, the actual Moral Law Giver. They can write their own moral law.
Now look at verse 24 and we see God’s response to this folly:
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
God’s judgment on these idol makers is a simple one: “Ok, have it your way.” Sometimes God does give us what we want, and in this case, He gives those who create their own gods exactly what they wanted. He “gave them up… to impurity”.
There stands the One, True God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and humanity has turned their back on Him to worship a created thing. Why? Because they don’t like the way God does things. God was preventing them from doing what they wanted to do with their bodies, so they preferred the lie to the truth and the created to the Creator. You’ve heard the phrase many times: “My body, my choice. No one can tell me what to do with my own body.” Well, God says that He wants to tell you what to do with your body. The only option is to find a different god.
Now look at verse 28, where you’ll see the words “God gave them up” again, and it shows the outcome of what happens when we worship gods of our own design. We go from a dishonouring of our bodies to a debasement of mind… :
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
This is what ultimately happens when we worship creation rather than creator. I asked at the beginning, after we had talked about the ancient sins of the Chaldeans and the Babylonians, “What makes people assume that they can do whatever they want and get away with it? What would make the leaders of a nation think that the world exists for their conquest and pleasure, and that it didn’t matter how they treated their fellow man?” And then I read you this list.
The answer to why we think pornography, abortion, human trafficking, gluttony, rage, hatred, greed, consumerism, gossip, and all the rest are okay, is because we take God off the throne, throw out His Moral law, and put our faith in things that humanity creates for itself. The only trajectory when we do that is the downwards spiral of sin. When we create our own gods to tell us what we want to hear – all that we will hear is: “Do whatever you want.”
Identifying Our Idols
The worst sin that humanity can commit is not drunkenness, covetousness, violence or injustice. The greatest and most dangerous sin, the source of all our other sins and all human suffering, is idolatry – worshiping a created thing instead of the Creator. It’s literally the first commandment. (Exodus 20:3)
Now, in your mind, you might still be thinking of an idolater as a member of a far-flung tribe bowing down to carved, wooden or golden statue. But that’s not right, is it? An idol is, potentially, anything we give our time, energy, resources, attention to. It’s what we put our hope in and turn to in times of desperation or celebration. We may not give blood sacrifices to giant metal statues, and pour incense on altars, but we do worship idols every day.
Here are some questions to help you identify your own idols:
- Where do you turn for comfort when you are feeling lonely, weak or sad? Food, alcohol, shopping, tv, porn, or just going to sleep? That’s your true source of power, your idol, your god.
- What, if it is damaged or taken away from you, makes you feel angry, depressed, anxious, or afraid? Your home, your money, your car, or another possession, or perhaps even a friend or spouse? Think about the last time you blew up at someone, or got really scared – which of your idols was threatened? What couldn’t God supply for you that that false-god provided?
- If you were surprised by a $20 windfall, what’s the first thing you’d want to do with it?
- What man-made idols do you pray for that are meant to stand right by Jesus in your heart?
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you keep me and my family healthy.”
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you keep me comfortable.”
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you pay all my bills.” (source)
- What would cause you to be angry at God if He decided to take it away?
- What do you complain about most?
- What makes you happiest?
- What do you dream and fanaticize about in your private thoughts?
- If you had one wish, what would it be for? Money? Fame? Sex? Popularity? Revenge? A better body? For someone to come back to life?
Conclusion: Consider The Folly of Your Idol
Whatever your answer is, I want you to take time this week to consider the folly of worshipping that idol.
- Why are you giving your time, resources, energy and attention and hope to something that is dead or dying in favour of the God who is alive?
- Why would you bow your knee to someone or something that has less power than Jesus?
- Isn’t it utterly irrational to elevate ourselves so high that we think we can actually create something greater than the One, True God — that we can invent something to overthrow and replace Him!?
Every time we turn away from God, our life begins to dry up. We walk away from the stream of life (Psalm 1), or remove our branch from the Vine, and we plant ourselves somewhere else. We begin to hunger and thirst, physically and spiritually, and our souls cry out for more. It is that moment that we have a choice: Turn back to God, or keep asking the false-god-of-our-own-making to feed us, heal us, bring us joy, and strengthen our spirits.
Think of the damage and devastation that comes to our lives when we seek hope from, and obey the words of, false gods that we have created for ourselves. They only feed us ashes and tell us what we want to hear.
So, which will you turn to? To Jesus Christ who offers the only path to a relationship to the One, True and Living God, or side with the dumb, blind, mute and dead god-of-your-own-making. You cannot save yourself – you need Jesus.