Have You Become What You Worship?

Some think of idolatry as a thing of the past, something primitive cultures struggled with but we no longer are tempted by in our modern day. Is this true?

Idolatry ultimately is about our conception of who God is. If people have a significantly wrong conception of who God is, then they commit themselves to a false and distorted conception of God and thus a false God. This becomes tantamount to idolatry. This is why God’s people must know his word. Only by knowing God’s word and thinking God’s thoughts after him will they have a right conception of who he is and, thus, worship the true God.

An interview with G.K. Beale

Does idolatry relate to the modern world? Why is it that we become whatever we worship? Is idolatry ultimately about our conception of who God is and who he is not?

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, talks with Greg Beale about the nature of idolatry and why it is so ironic and destructive. Greg Beale (PhD, Cambridge) holds the J. Gresham Machen Chair of New Testament and is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including A New Testament Biblical Theology, Book of Revelation (New International Greek Text Commentary), Revelation: A Shorter Commentaryand We Become What We Worship.

There is so much reference to idol worship in the Old Testament. How is this related to our own time? You do get some references in the New, but one has to ask, when you are in the Old Testament, “How does all this idol worship in Israel relate to the modern world?” And the way to know how it applies is to go to the New Testament.

Paul will say things, for example, in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 5, that greed and covetousness is idolatry. The point is that there are idols other than trees or statues that one bows down to, to worship. There are things like money. You begin to realize that there are commitments to other things in the world that involve idol worship other than literally bowing down to some statue.

If you go to any city, you do not have these cult statues at every corner as sometimes they had in the ancient world or in Athens, as Paul observed as he was passing through the city. The book of Revelation, for example, has a very interesting phrase. It talks about those who dwell upon the earth. It repeats it about seven or eight or so times. I was reading a commentator by the name of G. B. Caird commenting on this phrase, and I think he is exactly right. He says what it means is this: the phrase never is applied to believers in the book of Revelation. Why is that? Because we live on the earth, why can we not be called those who dwell upon the earth? Well, the reason is because wherever you find that phrase in the book of Revelation, often it is in the immediate context of idol worshipers.

John uses that phrase in a very broad way to explain the broad principle of idolatry. Those who live upon the earth are called that over and against Christians because they cannot find security in anything but this earth. They cannot look beyond this earth for their security and trust. They are rooted to this earth, and so the book of Revelation presents them as being judged along with this earth because they have made it or some aspect of it into an idol. Just as idols had to be destroyed in the Old Testament, so the world must be destroyed at the end of time. Why must the world be destroyed? Because the world has become an idol. People have made it an idol, whether it is trees, whether it is crops, as in Baal worship, or whatever it is. The point is – the way you go from Old to New and to our own time, in terms of idolatry, is realizing that idolatry can be any commitment to something that is not to God – that becomes one’s idol.

Having this perspective is extremely applicable. Idolatry can be jogging. Jogging is fine, but if you commit yourself to it above all else, then it becomes an idol. God’s good gifts in his creation are good gifts as long as we accept them as good gifts from him; but when we begin to trust in those, to find our ultimate satisfaction and happiness in those things, and not God, they become an idol. One woman said, “Tom used to be a Methodist, now he’s a jogger.” She may have been joking, but there was truth in what she said. There are jokes about a guy whose first name was Moses some years ago in basketball, in the NBA, and he was known as “Moses leading his people to victory into the promised land.” That is how it was explained. You watch football games and fathers will dress up as football players and their sons will be dressed up likewise, and it is not a joke, but there is some element of truth to it. They become like that to which they are committed. Athletes are idols. Why do we call them idols? It is because people do shower some level of worship upon them. They idolize them. This is only what emerges above the surface that may seem humorous at times, but it reveals something deeper about where people’s commitments are. For example, take the music idols. Young people begin to dress like them. They may get the same tattoos or the earrings, wear the same hairstyle, talk in the same way. Unfortunately, sometimes they will take on their lifestyle of drugs, so they begin to reflect them – that is pretty practical and a practical warning.

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