IDOLS | 40 Days of Focus, Day 9


“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
(Exodus 20:4-6)

The second of the 10 Commandments is a prohibition against crafting an image of a created thing in order to bow down to or worship it. Remember, the Hebrew people have just spent many generations in the land of Egypt which was overrun with idols and images. They were everywhere! If you go to Egypt even today and look at the ancient ruins, there are temples and idols and statues and carvings everywhere you look. They depict the pharaohs and the gods, retelling their collective stories in which they found their identity.

Some pharaohs ramped it up to eleven, like Ramses II who loved him some Ramses II. He built statues and shrines to himself right alongside those of Ra and Osiris and Horus.

“Stop doing that,” God says.

The question is, why?

I think there are many reasons God would give this command, but let’s look at two. First, it’s a little ridiculous to worship the Creator by ascribing to him an image of a created thing. Second, we already have an image of God walking around – human beings. We’ll get to that more in a moment.

I mentioned Isaiah yesterday. I want to draw your attention to what he actually says about the lunacy of idol worship. It’s a longer passage, but well worth it.

The blacksmith takes a tool
and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
he drinks no water and grows faint.
The carpenter measures with a line
and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
human form in all its glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars,
or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning;
some of it he takes and warms himself,
he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”
(Isaiah 44:12-20)

God, the Creator of everything, cannot be contained within or represented by anything we humans can make. God made cows – how are you going to represent him as a cow? God made the sun – how are you going to represent him as the sun? There certainly are things about God’s nature that we can learn from his creation (Romans 1), but any created image will fall short in fully representing God’s power and glory.

But it’s really difficult for us humans to focus on what we can’t see. We often need something on which to fix our gaze. That’s one of the attractions and also the dangers of idol worship. I heard a quote recently, but I cannot remember who originally wrote/said it: “The soul takes the shape of that which has its attention.” We are an increasingly image-based culture. We communicate through emoji, gifs, and memes. We don’t call or send text messages, we SnapChat and post to Instagram Stories. We don’t read books, we wait for the movie. We don’t read magazine articles, we watch YouTube videos.

Gathering around the TV to stream Netflix does not look much different in practice from gathering around the household shrine and telling the stories of the gods. Going to the movies does not look much different in practice than making a pilgrimage to the temple.

Living in an increasingly post-text, more image-based society leads us to think more strongly that “seeing is believing.” You can’t believe or know or experience that which you can’t see. So we create our own gods and form our new religions around celebrities, sports teams, and superheroes.

God says, “Stop it.”

For we live by faith, not by sight.
(2 Corinthians 5:7)

Second, God already has micro-images of himself walking around. Remember on Day Six God created mankind “in his image and likeness.” That makes me think about the time Jesus was at the Temple and some of the religious leaders wanted to trap him. They asked about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus’ response is brilliant.

“Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
(Matthew 22:19-21)

First of all, they weren’t supposed to have that kind of coin in the Temple because of this Command Number Two. But then Jesus asked about the image and inscription. If Caesar wants to put his image and inscription on a coin to mark it as his, then give it back to him. But God has placed his image and inscription upon each person. You are not your own. So give the coin to Caesar, but give your life to God.

We don’t need to create images to bow down to and worship as a representation of God. God has already done that work for us! Not that we worship human beings, but we see each other and know God is present among us. John words it WAY better than I can.

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 John 4:11-12)

If the soul takes the shape of that which holds its attention, then let us set our attention on love. May the love we have for one another be the image of God among us. And may we together in love fix our eyes on Jesus, the ultimate representation of God with us.

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
(Hebrews 1:3)

Do I think it’s wrong to have paintings, sculptures, and images adorning our church buildings? No. Art can certainly direct us toward God and connect with us on an emotional level. But we must always remember that the created thing is not to be worshiped or revered as “divine.”


Why do you think the visual arts are so effective at connecting with us emotionally?

Does your church building utilize art to draw people’s attention to God? Or is your worship space more bland and bare? Why? How effective is it?

Why do you think humans are so prone to worship a created thing rather than their unseen Creator?

ONE | 40 Days of Focus, Day 8


And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
(Exodus 20:1-3)

A quick summary of what happened after the creation accounts in Genesis: God made man and woman, placed them in a perfect garden, and gave them one rule – don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A serpent showed up and convinced them otherwise. They ate, they got expelled, their oldest son killed his younger brother – you know…typical family stuff. Things got worse until God sent a flood to wipe the slate clean and begin again with Noah and his family.

Then God called Abraham who would become the father of a great nation and through whom all the peoples of the world would be blessed. Miraculously Abraham and Sarah were able to have a baby boy in their old age. They named him Isaac. Isaac had twin sons named Jacob and Esau. Jacob tricked Esau out of his blessing and birthright – you know…typical family stuff.

Jacob wrestled with God and had his name changed to Israel. He also had 12 sons, one of whom was named Joseph. The other brothers hated Joseph and sold him to slave traders going to Egypt. One thing led to another and Joseph found himself as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine struck, the rest of Joseph’s family eventually made the move to Egypt, the only land with any food left. And then they just kind of…stayed. For a long time.

Image result for genesis bible

A new dynasty arose in Egypt who did not appreciate the contribution of this family of outsiders, known now as the Hebrews. The new Pharaoh ended up enslaving the population until God rose up a leader named Moses to free his people and lead them into their own homeland to fulfill a promise God made to Abraham.

Are you with me so far?

By some accounts, the people of Israel had spent nearly 400 years in Egypt, speaking their language, sharing their customs, learning about (and possibly worshiping) their gods. Now God must turn this ragamuffin smattering of tribes into a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. God took Moses up onto Mount Sinai and gave him a set of laws by which to establish these newly freed slaves as one nation under God.

Image result for moses with ten commandments

What’s the absolute most important thing for them to know? What’s number one on the list? What is going to be “pinned” to the top forever? Read it again with their history in mind:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.”

It’s almost like a formal introduction. “Hello, my name is YHWH. I am your God. Nice to meet you.” But think about it. These people have grown up knowing Ra and Horus and Isis and Osiris and Set and Hathor. Which one of these gods freed us from slavery? None of the above. Odds are they had mostly forgotten the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from their collective memory.

When I was growing up, I learned that the first of the 10 Commandments was “You shall have no other gods before me.” But that’s not what the Jews would say. The first commandment is “I am YHWH your God.” The no other gods clause flows from that declaration.

Also, I find it interesting that God doesn’t say “there are no other gods except me.” That would have been simply unbelievable to these people. Of course there are other gods! YHWH is just one among many. The Egyptians have their gods. We have our God. It’s not until much later that the prophets make the case against the existence of other gods (see Isaiah 44).

Here’s the reality – there are other gods. Anything we place in front of God becomes our god. Anything apart from God to which we cry out “save me!” becomes our idol.

What does that look like for us today? We so easily turn things into modern-day idols – celebrities, government & politicians, bank accounts, stock portfolios, social media profile, academics, sports, food. Our new gods are named “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Jesus put it this way:

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
(Matthew 6:33)

We get it wrong when we talk about “priorities.” There can really be only one priority – everything else is secondary or tertiary. If God is not your priority, your number one, then whatever else is in that spot is your idol.

How would you fill in this blank?
“I am the LORD your God who ____________________________.”

The Hebrew people needed to know and remember that it was YHWH who delivered them, not some other god or deity. They did not do it themselves. It wasn’t the Egyptian government’s idea to set all the slaves free. It was only God. He delivered them from slavery and brought them out of Egypt. When they forget that – and how forgetful we humans are! – they always fall into temptation and sin. Always. Remember who God is and what he has done.

May we know God today as our God. May we always remember what God has done for us – life, breath, joy, resilience, health, material blessings, family, friends, forgiveness, salvation, freedom.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
(James 1:17)

And may we never place any other god before God. May nothing in all creation take his place at the top.

The heavens praise your wonders, Lord,
your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies above can compare with the Lord?
Who is like the Lord among the heavenly beings?
In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared;
he is more awesome than all who surround him.
Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?
You, Lord, are mighty, and your faithfulness surrounds you.
(Psalm 89:5-8)


What other “gods” feature most prominently in your life? What “gods” are in the most competition with YHWH for priority in your life?

Why is it important to remember what God had done for us? How often do you share those stories with others? What’s your favorite story about what God has done for you?

 What happens when we forget God and what he has done for us? (See Exodus 32)

3 Life Traps to Avoid

Idolatry is a trap.

An idol, as we saw last time, is something that makes big promises, takes all it can, and gives nothing in return. This video from I Am Second featuring hit singer Tori Kelly does a fantastic job illustrating this point. Check it out:

Tori Kelly was promised the world. She was promised everything she could want – fame, fortune, success as a singer. But her “idol” deemed her not good/pretty/bubbly enough. So long, see you later. Next!

She had to learn not to tie her identity to anything other than Christ. Kelly had to learn to let go and gain her freedom (remember the Monkey Trap?).


If idolatry is a trap, it’s helpful to know what kind of traps to specifically be on the lookout for. The Bible identifies three main traps, and life has confirmed this to be true. Here’s exactly what we need to watch for:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Did you see the traps? 1) Craving for physical pleasure, 2) Craving for everything we see, and 3) Pride in our achievements and possessions. These are the tools Satan uses to draw us away from God and trap us in idolatry. We fall for them all the time. Every single one of us has been trapped by at least one of these tricks. And they are literally as old as human history.


The Bible opens with the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. God creates the world and everything in it. God crowns his creation with God’s masterpiece – humanity, God’s own image bearers. God places the first man and woman in a garden called Eden. It’s a paradise – free of sin, pain, death, and I assume mosquitoes. They have one God-given rule, only one! Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s it. There’s one tree you can’t eat from. Everything else is fair game. How could they possibly mess that up?

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”
“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”
“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”
The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. (Genesis 3:1-7)

Did you see the traps? Look more closely. She saw that the fruit 1. looked delicious (cravings for physical pleasure), 2. looked beautiful (cravings for everything we see), and 3. would grant her the wisdom that she wanted (pride in our achievements and possessions). The Serpent (aka Satan) pulled out all the stops. He set all three traps in place, and she fell for every single one.

**Notice, by the way, that she gave the fruit to her husband “who was with her.” Adam wasn’t some innocent bystander. It’s not like he was off somewhere else completely unaware of what was happening. Adam was fooled just as much as Eve.**

And with all three traps set and then sprung, sin and idolatry entered the world.

At the end of Genesis 3, however, God makes a promise that some day one of Eve’s offspring would crush the head of the serpent once and for all.


Fast forward to the 1st Century CE in Palestine. A Jewish Rabbi is on the scene named Yeshua (or Jesus to us Westerners). Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. As he came up out of the water, the heavens part and the voice of God could be heard proclaiming “You are my Son whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. This is a literal re-creation story.

And just as with the creation story in Genesis, so it is with Jesus. He is immediately led into the Judean wilderness where he fasts for 40 days and faces temptations from Satan. Imagine fasting for 40 days! That’s about the limit for the human body to survive without food. Some of us get hangry after 40 minutes without eating. Picture being on-the-brink-of-literal-starvation-hangry…and then literal Satan shows up. Ugh…. Just read this passage while I go get a snack.

Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry.
Then the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.”
Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say,
‘You must worship the Lord your God
    and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say,
‘He will order his angels to protect and guard you.
And they will hold you up with their hands
    so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”
Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’”
When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came. (Luke 4:1-13)

Ok, did you see the traps that time? Really, Satan couldn’t make it any more obvious. It’s the same three traps as he used in the Garden all those thousands of years before.

  1. Turn these stones to bread = cravings for physical pleasure
  2. I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world = cravings for everything we see
  3. Throw yourself down from the Temple in front of all these crowds of people, proving to everyone who you truly are and what you’re capable of = pride in our achievements or possessions

However, where Adam and Eve failed, Jesus successfully avoided the traps and exposed them for what they truly were – empty promises.


These three traps can be thought of like this:

“Cravings for Physical Pleasure” = Self-Centeredness – only caring about my needs, my physical cravings, my appearance, my schedule, my success, me – me – me

“Cravings for Everything We See” = Greed – never being satisfied with what I have, always wanting more things, new, shiny, latest and greatest, trendy, jealous, more – more – more

“Pride in Our Achievements and Possessions” = Pride – success, achievement, and being the best are the only things that matter. Second place is first loser. I have to be the best me, and I need other people to know it. Failure is not an option, win – win – win

Self-Centeredness, Greed, and Pride are the core tricks of the trade for Satan. They are the main ways our idols keep us trapped. Here’s what that looks like in real life.

My relationships become an idol when I make it all about me – what I can get out it, how my needs are being met, how that person make me feel.
Relationships become an idol when I’m greedy – always wanting more time, more devotion, or simply moving on to the next person if you aren’t good enough for me anymore.
And relationships become an idol when I become prideful – I have to have the best relationship, or at the very least we have to appear successful. I keep score of who does more for the other person and become resentful when the other person isn’t pulling their weight.

Work can become an idol when I’m self-centered – looking out for my own interests instead of the good of the company, doing anything to get more money or more promotions, making everything a competition with my coworkers.
Work can become an idol when I fall into greed – working longer hours for more overtime to bring home a bigger pay check to a wife and kids I never see so we can buy more stuff we never use.
Work can become an idol when I let my pride get in the way – making sure everyone knows how good I am, making myself indispensable, getting jealous of anyone else who gets promotions, always self-promoting and emphasizing my own achievements and successes.


These are the traps of idolatry. They aren’t always easy to see. Sometimes navigating life feels like that scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. The only way we know how to avoid the traps is by learning from those who have gone before us. Self-centeredness, Greed, and Pride can suck you in, keep you trapped, and totally derail your life. Maybe now that we know what to look out for, we can follow in the steps of Jesus and avoid these snares of life.

Which of the three traps is most difficult for you to avoid? How might these traps be lying in wait for us even in the church? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss a post!

No More Idols

I’ve never worshiped an idol. I’ve never bowed down to a statue or offered sacrifices to a foreign god. I’ve never set up a shrine to anyone or anything. I’ve never carved or chiseled an image to represent a deity.

But I’m an idolater.

And so are you, probably.

I’m starting a new series on Wednesday nights with our teens called “No More Idols.” Over the next couple of months we’re going to be rethinking idolatry, reevaluating our lives, and purging any idol worship we may find.


This seems like a weird topic for 2018. Idolatry is such a churchy word, and idol worship seems so foreign or even primitive to our sophisticated, Western, enlightened minds.

Here’s why:

They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. (Psalm 106:36)

If you’ve ever seen the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, you are practically an expert in snares. A snare is a trap. For a trap to work, there has to be some bait – something that is appealing, alluring, desirable. The animal is lured into the trap by the bait, and when the moment is right the trap springs, catching the animal inside the cage or in its grip. Sure, the animal gets what it wants, but at the cost of its life.

Idolatry is a trap.

Do you know how to catch a monkey? This real life metaphor, popularized by Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has been spread widely over the last few decades. It’s called the South Indian Monkey Trap. We think monkeys are cute and would make great pets. But in some parts of the world, monkeys are pests. They are a nuisance to have around. So they must be trapped and removed. But how?

The trap is incredibly simple – just a hollowed out coconut or gourd with a small prize inside, like rice, fruit, or something shiny. A small hole in the side allows the monkey to slip its hand inside and grab hold of the object. But once the hand is in a fist shape, it cannot be pulled back out the hole. The monkey must either let go of its treasure or remain trapped.

Idolatry is a trap.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we must all understand what we’re talking about and why it matters.

So what is an idol?

At its most basic, an idol is “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.” We find idols in nearly every ancient culture and civilization – from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Mayans. We find them today among the Hindus, the Buddhists (although Buddha is not a god who is worshiped), the Sikhs (their holy book is revered to nearly divine status), and a few others.

An idol is a statue, carving, engraving, painting, etc. that is revered and worshiped as a representation of the divine.

What’s the big deal, though?

Let’s take a quick refresher course on the first two of the Ten Commandments:

And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)

The first two commandments are 1) You shall have no other gods before me, and 2) You shall not make for yourself an image to bow down to and worship.

Remember that God is giving these commands to a newly freed Hebrew people. They have been living as slaves in Egypt for the past several generations. The only religion they have known and practiced would have involved the Egyptian pantheon. The ancient Egyptians had dozens, if not hundreds of gods. They had major temples built to Osiris, Isis, Horus, Thot, Hathor, Set, and more. The Hebrews would have been all too familiar with idol worship and polytheism (the worship of multiple gods).

Then YHWH shows up, sends Moses to deliver them, and brings them to the base of this mountain to set the record straight. YHWH is your God, your only God, and YHWH will not be depicted by any image of a created thing. This would have been completely revolutionary to them. One God? No idols? Okay, we’ll give it a try… (they would soon fail at all of that, but we’ll get to that later).

God begins his story with his people by prohibiting idol worship. And the New Testament ends with the same instruction!

Among the latest writings of the New Testament are the letters from John. First John ends abruptly with this instruction:

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)

Why? Because idolatry is a trap.

An idol is…

  • anything that takes the place of God.
  • that which promises greatly, takes everything, and gives nothing.
  • anything apart from God to which we cry out, “save me!”
Let’s do a little activity! Take a look at the expertly made bracket. We all love brackets, right? You will see 32 items, and we’re trying to find what is most important to us. For each pairing, ask yourself which of these two is more important in my life? Be real. Be honest.
What was your winner? Was it family? Friends? Significant other? Career? Video games?
What decision was the hardest for you to make? Did you have to choose between money and your friends? Did you have to choose between church and video games? Did you have to choose between your family and your significant other?
Here’s the point. Every time we say “Yes” to something, we are automatically saying “No” to something else. For every yes, there is a corresponding no. You may have to say yes to sports and no to drugs. You may have to say yes to your career and no to taking vacations.
Most of these things are not bad in and of themselves. The fact is that you cannot say yes to everything. Life is full of choices like this. You must learn to say yes and no wisely.
What’s going to benefit you and others the most? What’s the best use of your time and resources? What is going to be the most fulfilling, most life giving choice? What are you going to regret NOT doing at the end of your life?
Idolatry is a trap because it promises that which it can never offer. Idols necessarily overpromise and underdeliver. They give you just enough to keep you trapped, giving you the illusion of getting what you want – like the monkey in the coconut trap.
But when you say yes to God and no to idols, you are set free from those traps and cycles (we’ll look at these more in the coming weeks). Through Christ’s death we are set free from the bondage of sin and death. Idols may promise the world, but the world is only God’s to give – and it’s already promised to the meek (Matthew 5).
Idolatry is alive and well in America.
Take a look at the most important things in your life – those things that made it to the semifinals in your bracket. Could one or more of these be taking over as an idol in your life? Ask yourselves these questions:
  • how might this idol pull you away from God?
  • what do people sacrifice in worship to this idol?
  • what does this idol promise that it can’t actually deliver?
The life worth living is one in which we say Yes to God and no to idols. What God has promised, God will deliver.