Sin as Idolatry
Idolatry, the worship of something other than God, is at the root of all sin because sin seeks to steal glory from God, to whom alone it is due, and take it for the sinner.
Adam and Eve were created in the Garden of Eden to rule as kings, priests, and prophets, bringing glory to God their maker. Their sin, then, was a determination to bring glory to themselves rather than God; in short, they worshipped themselves rather than God. Israel continues this idolatrous pattern, desiring to worship a god, the golden calf, who would give them what they desired rather than waiting for the true God to tell them what he desired. Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, they deemed God’s word insufficient. Jesus came and restored humanity to their roles as obedient kings, priests, and prophets through his faithful life, which ended by taking the punishment for our idolatrous failure to do the same. Now, Christians live in the overlap of these two ages, still suffering under the curse of sin and fighting against the tendencies of the old Adam while having our minds renewed by the Spirit into the image of Christ.
Adam and Eve: The Beginning of the Story
Genesis 1–2 narrates God creating the heavens and earth to be his cosmic house, so that he may rule over and dwell with the created order. On the sixth day, God created Adam and Eve to image him on the earth—to rule as kings, priests, and prophets (Gen. 1:27–30; 2:7–24). Being created in God’s image means that Adam and Eve represent him on the earth in all their thoughts and actions. It is the divine imprint of God in humanity that reflects his divine attributes and functions. As kings, the first couple is to rule as God rules. The earth, while it is “good,” still requires management and subjection (Gen. 1:28). As priests, Adam and Eve are to spread God’s glory to the ends of the earth by transplanting Eden (Gen. 2:15). God dwells with Adam and Eve in the garden, so where the garden goes, his glory follows. As prophets, they must learn and apply God’s law to every facet of their lives (Gen. 2:16–18). God therefore creates humanity to remain wholly dependent on him and represent him faithfully on the earth.
As we turn our attention to Genesis 3, we must not lose sight of Adam and Eve’s responsibility to image God on the earth. The serpent strategically challenges their threefold office as kings, priests, and prophets, cajoling them to cast off God’s image and become independent of God and function at his level. The temptation, at the heart of it, is to become “like God” (Gen. 3:4)—to rule and think like God. The serpent’s trickery proved too much for Eve and she succumbed. Adam, too, did not hold fast to God’s promises, and he quickly followed suit. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “Sin is any lack of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (14). That is, any thought, action, disposition, etc. that does not fall into conformity with God’s commandments and glory is “sin.” What lead Adam and Eve astray is their unfounded belief that they should bring glory to themselves, to enjoy what God alone enjoys. At the root of all sin is idolatry—the worship of something other than God. Fundamentally, created things should not worship any part of the created order; images should not worship other images, one’s self or otherwise. The first instance of idolatry recorded in the Bible resulted in a “cosmic tragedy” (see Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 65).
The first couple’s sin sent shock waves throughout the cosmos. We immediately see the effects of their actions: they “realized they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). The word here for “naked” is related to the Hebrew word for “crafty” (Exod. 21:14; Josh. 9:4; Job 5:13). Recall that a few verses earlier in 3:1, the serpent is considered “more crafty than any of the wild animals” (3:1). The couple is, as a result of the fall, resembling characteristics of the serpent (see Meredith G. Kline, Genesis: A New Commentary, 22). Instead of representing God on the earth, Adam and Eve are now beginning to represent the serpent. Worship inevitably leads to transformation, good or ruin (see G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship, 16). Their allegiance has shifted, and now their threefold office will be used a weapon for destruction. Humanity, outside of God’s grace, will abuse one another, defile God’s earth, and promote lies and deception. But this isn’t the final word. Later on in chapter 3, God promises that a descendant of Eve will arise and accomplish what Adam and Eve failed to accomplish (Gen. 3:15). They failed to rule over the serpent and rid Eden of it, so now a faithful image bearer of God will obey where they disobeyed. Through the faithfulness of one, sin and idolatry will be undone and God’s people will one day possess a restored image.
The Nation of Israel: More of the Same
As we now consider the nation of Israel, much of what we will see corresponds to Adam and Eve in the garden. We should regard Israel as a corporate Adam. What is true of Adam is generally true of Israel. Like Adam, God commands the nation to be kings, priests, and prophets (Exod. 19:6; cf. Isa. 43:1). But also like Adam, Israel sinned against God by committing idolatry. The serpent deceived the first couple by enticing them with the offer to become gods and function outside of God. The same can be said of Israel’s failure.
While Moses is atop Sinai communing with the Lord, Israel grows impatient. They wonder if Moses has forgotten about them, so, instead of waiting patiently on the Lord, they take matters into their own hands (Exod. 32:1). Instead of acting as a faithful imager bearer and encouraging the nation to trust God, Aaron fashioned a golden calf with gold earrings (Exod. 32:2–5). Israel explicitly then breaks the first two commandments (Exod. 20:3–4). But the breach of the commandments revealed a fundamental issue in the hearts of the Israelites—a lack of trust in God’s word. God promised that he would dwell his people and that his life-giving presence would nourish and protect them (Exod. 19:5–6). Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, they deemed God’s word insufficient. The Israelites wanted to dictate the terms of their preservation. They wanted to be in charge of their destiny. They wanted to be gods and worshiping the golden calf was a means to that end.
Recall that after the fall, Adam and Eve saw themselves “naked” (Gen. 3:7), an incident that reveals their transformation into the image of the “crafty” serpent (Gen. 3:1). Remarkably, Exodus 32 portrays Israel’s idolatrous worship of the molten calf in language describing rebellious cattle to convey the idea that Israel had become like the object of its worship. Israel is called a “stiff-necked people” who were “running wild” and “out of control” (Exod. 32:9, 24–25). Sinful Israel is mocked by being depicted metaphorically as rebellious cows running amuck because the nation had become as spiritually lifeless as the inanimate golden calf. Worship always leads to transformation, so false worship, which is idolatry, will result in self-destruction incurring God’s judgment.
Despite Israel’s treacherous behavior, hope remains. The promise of a coming deliverer is an integral part of God’s covenant with Israel. God’s ultimate intention, to populate the earth with his faithful images, will be accomplished. Embedded within Israel’s law, hope remains for a future individual to fill Adam and Israel’s shoes but obey where they failed. Within the sacrificial system, too, there’s an expectation that God would one day send the ultimate sacrifice who would bear the sins of God’s people. Sin will not have the final word.
Jesus: The Faithful One
One of striking element of Jesus’s earthly ministry is his prerogative to retrace the steps of Adam and Israel. He must succeed where they fail. His chief responsibility is to save humanity from their sin and idolatry. This is why the angel instructs Joseph to name him Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 2:21). Because of the fall of Adam and Eve, humanity’s greatest problem is estrangement from God. Sin drove a wedge between God and those in his image. So, God sends his Son to come into the world to solve humanity’s sin problem by bearing the Father’s wrath and reconciling us with him.
The Synoptic Gospels claim that the devil tempted Jesus over a period of forty days (Matt. 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1–2). The qualification that this occurred in the wilderness together with the forty days recalls Israel’s temptation in the wilderness. Numbers 14:34 states why God’s punishment of Israel lasted forty years in the wilderness: “For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.” Each day of unfaithfulness corresponds to one year of punishment. Jesus’ forty-day wilderness experience of faithfulness is a typological microcosm of Israel’s forty-year experience of unfaithful wandering in the desert and Adam and Eve’s temptation in the garden.
The Apostle Paul explains that God “in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). According to the Old Testament, God promised to punish sin at the very end of history (e.g., Isa. 40:2; Ezek. 44:29), and God did so in judging his son on behalf of his people. Christ’s death is an eschatological event, offering life to those who trust him (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8–9) and judgment upon those who don’t (John 3:18). Sin and idolatry were undone through Christ’s faithfulness.
The Church: Saints in the Overlap of the Ages
Believers live now in what is often called the already-not yet, or the “overlap of the ages.” For the most part, the Old Testament anticipated that the messiah would come, vanquish Israel’s enemies, suffer on behalf of God’s people, establish the eternal kingdom, and usher in the resurrection of believers. All of these events were to occur together at the very end of history. While the coming of Christ began to fulfill these expectations, it did not bring them to their final and full fulfillment. Old Testament promises have “already” begun to be fulfilled here and now but remain to be fully fulfilled at Christ’s second coming—the “not yet.” Therefore, God’s people, though justified and spiritually resurrected on account of their union with the Last Adam (Rom. 5:19; Eph. 2:5–6; Col 3:1), still sin and commit idolatry. The saints are caught living in the overlap of two ages. Though believers are spiritually resurrected, they still possess indwelling sin and, until their bodily resurrection, will continue to sin. All of our thoughts and actions are, at some level, tainted with sin. The old Adam still lives within, though he is no longer dominant.
Such eschatological dissonance affects how we understand sin and idolatry in the present. Since we have a new birth in Christ, or, as Paul claims, we are a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), we have power over sin, for it is no longer our master (Rom. 6). Romans 12:2 states, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” In contrast to unbelievers who are transformed into the images of their idols (Rom. 1:21–32), believers are to be transformed into the image of Christ. God has begun to restore our image through Christ. In him, believers are true kings, priests, and prophets, who consciously and continually worship Christ through reading the Bible, prayer, participating in a local body of believers, and so on. That is what believers are called to do, but now we must consider what they are not to do.
Idolatry is more than bowing down before a physical idol. It is, as we have seen, any worship outside of God. The New Testament often weds idolatry with unrighteous behavior. First Corinthians 6:9, for example, reads, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality” (HCSB; cf. 1 Cor. 5:10–11; 8:1–10; 10:7, 14, 19; Gal. 5:20; Eph. 5:5).
One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to swallow occurs in James 4:4 where he labels some within his congregations as “adulteresses” (4:4; NASB). The term “adulteresses” seems odd and gives the reader pause. The term recalls several key passages within the book of Hosea where the prophet castigates the “adulterous” Israelites for breaking the covenant (Hos. 2:4; 4:2, 13–14; 7:4). Instead of clinging to the Lord in obedience like a faithful bride, the Israelites have embraced the false gods of the pagan nations (Hos. 1:2; 2:2–13). The point of the allusion is that James’s audience is “in danger of the same kind of covenant unfaithfulness” that was pervasive in Hosea’s day (see Karen H. Jobes, “The Greek Minor Prophets in James” in ‘What Does the Scripture Say?’: Studies in the Function of Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity, vol. 2, 147–58).
Therefore, believers today are called to faithful kings, priests, and prophets, exclusively devoted to the triune God. Those who hold fast to Christ and renounce the allurements of this world will live forever in the new heavens and earth where God will perfect our worship and rid us of sin and idolatry (Rev. 21:1–22:5).
- Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image
- Benjamin L. Gladd, Adam and Israel: A Biblical Theology of the People of God
- Daniel I. Block, For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship
- G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. See Author Interview here.
- G. K. Beale, “We Reflect What We Worship.”
- Meredith G. Kline, Genesis: A New Commentary
- R. C. Sproul, “Sin is Cosmic Treason”
- Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion
- Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible
- Tony Reinke, “We Become What We Worship”
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