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Editors’ note: 

Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year

Of all the questions Christians face, understanding idolatry doesn’t feel like a particularly hard one. What is idolatry? The worship of idols. It’s worshiping something other than God. 

While that answer is true, it’s insufficient. Scripture gives multiple accounts of idolatry. Some are clearly worship of false gods. But idolatry also includes false worship of the true God. And, in the Bible, it’s often hard to tell the difference. Ever wonder why worshiping God in the “high places” in 1 and 2 Kings leads so quickly into worshiping Baal and Asherah poles? Because false worship—or unauthorized worship—leads to more false worship.

Worshiping God Truly

Worship of false gods, and false worship of the true God, are both false worship. The Bible’s clearest example of just how similar those two forms of false worship are is also the Bible’s most famous example of idolatry in the Bible: the golden calf.

Worship of false gods, and false worship of the true God, are both false worship.

At first, Exodus 32 sounds like an instance of the first kind of idolatry—worship of a false god. The Israelites certainly sound like they’re asking for a new god to lead them: “Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Ex. 32:1). 

Whatever their motivations were, Aaron attempted to redefine the act into worship of Yahweh:

And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” (Ex. 32:4–5) 

Is this about worshiping false gods, or the true God falsely? It sounds an awful lot like both. The people want something new. Aaron invokes the divine name, the LORD (Yahweh), in order to consecrate the feast devoted to celebrating and sacrificing to this shiny statue.

What was the Lord’s verdict? Despite the best (though dubious) intentions of Aaron, the people abandoned faithfulness to God. Despite Aaron calling it holy, their new worship was nothing but an abomination. Despite it being labeled worship of Yahweh, God himself dubbed it worship of something else.

Obedience to God’s Revelation

Exodus 32 is a sobering passage. It makes clear that a worshiper’s intentions are irrelevant when their worship isn’t obedient to the clear instruction of God’s Word. Creativity is a wonderful gift; but we can’t use it to come up with novel ways to approach a holy Lord. We may only come through Christ. We may only know God through his revelation to us, not our inventions or improvements. 

Creativity is a wonderful gift; but we can’t use it to come up with novel ways to approach a holy Lord. We may only come through Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the second commandment summarizes this well:

Question 96. What does God require in the second commandment?

A: That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded us in his Word.

Question 97. May we not make any image at all?

A: God may not and cannot be imaged in any way; as for creatures, though they may indeed be imaged, yet God forbids the making or keeping of any likeness of them, either to worship them or to serve God by them.

Question 98. But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?

A: No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have his people taught by dumb idols, but by the lively preaching of his Word. 

What This Means for Us

Briefly, let me offer four points of application from this text.

1. This passage should humble us.

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Cor. 10: 12–13). 

If idolatry includes false worship of the true God, worship of a god made according to our tastes is, according to Scripture, idolatrous. It’s not just neo-paganism that promotes idolatry. It’s not just Rob Bell saying he can worship God best on his surfboard.

It’s our desire to downplay the holiness and holy wrath of God when we talk about him. It’s our Athenian-like fascination with new ideas. It’s in our fixation on the latest online controversy, and our reluctance to sing aloud when the music plays at church. All these show how easily tempted we are to worship a god after our image, rather than the God who speaks.

2. This passage warns us against excusing sin.

Many Christians struggle to say someone has done wrong when they meant well, but Aaron’s interpretation of the calf-worship warns us that good intentions are insufficient. The road to hell really is paved with good intentions. A cow statue called Yahweh is still a statue. A white lie is still a lie. Good intentions require a foundation of divine instruction, if they are to result in God-honoring worship. That’s true in our lives.

Many Christians struggle to say someone has done wrong when they meant well, but Aaron’s interpretation of the calf-worship warns us that good intentions are insufficient.

It’s also true in our corporate gatherings as local churches. The wrongness of cutting out lengthy prayer in corporate and replacing it with a video or sketch that will appeal to non-Christians isn’t a question of aesthetics. It’s an offense against God because it neglects what he has commanded, and replaces it (prayer) with a human innovation. No matter how good your intentions are, that’s bad. When we presume we can know what will please God, without having first listened to what he’s said in his Word, the god we are aiming to please is not the true God. 

3. This passage helps us see theology is devotional.

If a wrong view of God is an idolatrous view of God, then theology is essential to worship. Getting God’s identity wrong is shameful and worthy of judgment.

Knowing God as he has revealed himself determines your ability to truly worship and enjoy him. So devote yourself to knowing what he teaches about himself in Scripture. Let us never say doctrine is impractical. Our worship depends on it.

4. This passage helps us see we need God’s grace.

How easy is it to think of the infinite, matchless God in ways that are incorrect? We all have wrong thinking in our hearts about God. The shortcomings of the Israelites’ worship, and God’s judgment of them, is a stark reminder of what we deserve apart from Christ. 

The effects of the fall pervade everything in this life. “Apart from his gracious work in us, there is no health in us.” Not even our worship is acceptable to God, apart from Christ.

We need Christ’s grace to worship Christ himself. And praise God, he gives it.

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